Goodbyes are never easy. I know that even as an adult this is true. When I really reflect on goodbyes, I don’t think I know anyone that enjoys them. Many of us avoid them or brush them over so that we can avoid being upset or perhaps it’s so that we just aren’t seen to be upset. The questions for me is…is this due to how we viewed goodbyes when we were children or is it just that no matter our age, the feeling of losing something, even temporarily, is something we’d all rather avoid?
When children enter the world, they are dependent on us to have their needs met. The reality of human life is that children have to eventually separate and become their own person. This is a completely normal stage of child development. They become more aware of themselves as a separate human being and of you, the adult, as a separate human being too. Strong, secure attachment relationships are the foundation for children’s well-being. Dr. Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber have advocated this notion for some time. Brain research over the last two decades also echoes this sentiment. Once these relationships and attachments form in the first year of life, the presence of the person (or people) the child is attached to is important to the child. When it comes to separating from you, they will notice and it can be difficult for a young child due to the fact that they have little sense of time. Adults know how long a separation will last, but a young child doesn’t. All they know is that they are without the people they care the most about. So how do we support children to understand and cope with separation ensuring that the trust and relationship between the adult and child remains in tact?
The answer is simple; just like most things with children, we support them by allowing them the opportunity to practice it and make sense of it. Until they have the repeated experience of being apart and the parent returning, they don’t know that a separation is only temporary. When we allow the child to practice separating (and with that reuniting), we are allowing them the opportunity to learn coping strategies for the situation. Children need to practice it in order to gain an understanding of it and this takes time. While this answer is simple, the process of this practice can be less so and the practicing of separation doesn’t come without hurt. We aren’t able to shield children from being upset or crying, but we can protect the trust between an adult and child and this trust is what supports the process of separations.
My advice for separations is to start this learning and this sense of trust from the very beginning and start small. An example could be something as simple as going to the bathroom while in your own home. You tell them you’re going to the bathroom and then you’ll be back and then you go. They might protest or they might not. When you come back and see each other again, they then have the opportunity to begin to understand what that means. The trust between you grows as they learn that when you say you’re going to come back, you do. Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you will always return after you leave. This will be comfort enough while you’re gone. This opportunity allows them to develop coping skills for separation.
When I was in Sacramento earlier this year, observing a Parent-Infant class facilitated by Simone Stave Demarzi, in the discussion after class we talked about this. I remember thinking about the simplicity in the dialogue around such a complex matter. This was really thought provoking for me. There was a parent who in the past would sneak out during the class, and on that day she had told the child. While he had protested, Simone, who allowed him to express his feelings about the separation, supported him. When Mum came back and they were reunited, equilibrium was restored and the class and their exploration continued.
This example highlighted that while the process of saying goodbye was important and an invaluable learning opportunity for the child; the reunion and how this was approached was of equal if not more importance. Though the separation was a rupture in their relationship, the reuniting is the repair and it is here that the trust and love is built. According to brain development expert Daniel Siegel, ruptures are inevitable breaks in the nurturing connection with the child. What is important is not that ruptures never occur, but that ruptures are repaired. Repairing ruptures is an essential part of parenting, but also an essential part of all human relationships. Dr. Allan Schore also notes that the ability to repair ruptures is what allows the tolerance of negative affects, such as a separation. Research now shows us that this is where resilience and coping strategies are developed. A child’s resilience grows as they go through stresses, and then they go through the repair. This allows them to not only make sense through practice, but to also cement the trust in the relationship through the repair.
Simone and I also talked about when adults sneak out without telling their child, they break their trust. That is the hard part for a child and can have an impact on the relationship between the adult and the child. I have seen this also in an early childhood setting. The child has experienced their parent sneaking away, and from then on, they are on high alert when coming into the space. The trust has been broken so they are then on constant watch for any movements from their parent. They can be reluctant to get fully involved in anything because at the back of their mind, they are wondering if their person might be about to slip away. Even when you have to interrupt your child, saying goodbye is important. We also discussed the importance of practicing going and coming back alongside a supportive carer, someone who will support the child with the same language, compassion and understanding.
This same idea was discussed in a recent Parent-Infant Guidance™ class with my mentor Sharon Smith; in particular how the process of saying goodbye has to be considered. The separation needs to be approached calmly and slowly. Heading to your child telling them confidently and calmly that you are going to go and who would be here for them and that they would be back. If we approach these moments too quickly, the child can respond very differently. Adults know what we are doing, but children need a little more time to process what you are saying so it’s critical that we slow down and allow children this tarry time.
“Separating and reuniting is what life is all about,” says Magda Gerber, RIE® Founder and if we really reflect on our own lives, this couldn’t be more true. This takes time, space and opportunity to practice it and gain an understanding. Children will get there eventually. Consistency, clarity and confidence can all help ease daily separations between an adult and child which will be a beautiful foundation for when the big separations come later, for example, when your child starts childcare. Be kind to yourself and to your child and just remember that everything gets easier with practice.
Helen Lye has been an NZITC Board Member since 2016. She was a NZITC Scholarship recipient in 2016 completing the RIE® Foundations™ with RIE® Associates Sharon Smith and Gail Nadal. She has recently completed her RIE® Practicum™.