Leaving and saying goodbye – how to help kids


It’s that time of year again when end-of-year programs and activities are under way. After several years of living here, the children now know that this signals DEPARTURE. Whether it be a teacher or classmates, a neighbor or “BFF”. For some of us, it also signals that our time in Malaysia is coming to a close. And as we know all too well, goodbyes are never easy, especially for our children.

“Don’t be sad, we’ll see “BFF” again, for sure! They can come visit or we can go and see them in their new home.”

“Don’t worry, it’s so easy to stay in touch nowadays – there’s Skype, Facebook and you can email or send messages everyday. You’ll still be in each other’s lives.”

“Think of all the friends you now have around the world. How exciting! If we take a trip to England or America, you can be sure to meet up with “Neighbor” there.”

“It will be fine. We’ll be back home with all your old friends, Grandma/Grandpa, your cousins…”

“Think of our new home as a new adventure–there will be so many new things to see and experience, people to meet. There will be LEGO stores and adventure parks as well.”

halloween darth and batman

These are just some of the things we’ve said or hear being said to our children, in the hopes of comforting them when a departure and the stress and sadness that comes with it is imminent. But in a talk I once attended given by Ruth E. Van Reken, author of “Third Culture Kids” along with David C. Pollock, this sort of denial and lack of confrontation of the difficulties of departure  can bring about some challenges and further trauma to the children in the long-run. Details of this are tackled in her book (an indispensable resource for high-mobility families, like expats).

In the chapter of the book entitled “Dealing with Transition”, Ruth advises the “leaving stage is a critical one to do well if parents want the transitions as smooth as possible but also help their children grow in the process…”  Healthy closure is something that can be facilitated with the help of building a RAFT- not a literal one, of course. RAFT is an acronym to the practical steps we can practice to help children through transition, whether they be the ones left behind or the ones moving on. You can read full details about it in the book or in blogs here and here, but in summary it means:

This means (for both adults and children) resolving conflicts, misunderstanding or disagreements with people before leaving. It was pointed out that in order to move on to the next destination in peace, it is important to leave in peace.

This step is about having your child/children acknowledge the people and relationships that have mattered to them. This might be teachers, friends, neighbors or family members who are left behind as families move on to the next home.

The book describes this as “saying goodbye to people, places, pets and possessions in culturally and age-appropriate ways is important if we don’t want to have regrets later. We need to schedule time for these farewells during the last few weeks and days.” In one of the blogs mentioned above, she simply states this as “honoring the goodbye.”

Think destination
Finally, it is important to think about the next destination–the practicalities of day-to-day living there as well as the first few weeks of transition. It’s also worth thinking about how to help our children to know what to expect. Tools such as maps, images, videos, photos of the next house or school help them understand what to expect. The wonders of Facebook and other social media networks in connecting with other families at the next destination is invaluable for preparation and having ready contacts upon arrival.

Written by Marite Irvine

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