The Importance of Saying Goodbye to Your Child

Daughter saying goodbye to mother


It is 8 a.m. and you put on your shoes to leave for work. Or you grab your coat to go out to dinner, zip your suitcase to catch a flight for a work conference, or simply get up from the couch to go the bathroom. Your child becomes hysterical, crying, screaming, clinging to your leg. Begging you not to leave. 

Most parents have experienced this scenario in some form. You need to leave your child with a caregiver (or another parent), but you can't help feeling sad and guilty about leaving your child in hysterics. Maybe you even feel a little embarrassed in front of the sitter. This situation is stressful and upsetting for parents. But goodbye meltdowns can often be avoided with a special goodbye routine. 

Remember that your child's behavior is normal. Separation anxiety starts as early as 8 months. It is at this time that young children can understand that parents are separate individuals and can leave. However, young children cannot yet grasp the concept that a parent will return. It is your job to help them understand that parents come back.

Introduce Other Caregivers

The first step to easing separation in children is introducing other caregivers. By the time your child is 6 months old, begin using other caregivers so your baby can practice being without the parent. Being around other caregivers will minimize separation anxiety when your child goes to school or at other times when you are not around.

Start Goodbyes Early

At a young age, start a routine of saying goodbye to your child whenever you leave. A quick goodbye with a kiss and a wave is ideal. A long emotional goodbye is not going to help your child’s anxiety.

Say goodbye to your child even if you are running to the store and returning in 10 minutes. The more often you leave and return with a proper goodbye, the easier it will be for your child to grasp the concept of separation.

Develop a Ritual

A ritual will help ease your child’s anxiety and provide security. Whatever ritual you decide, whether it be a high five and a wave or two kisses and a fist bump, it will send a signal to your child that it is time for you to leave. Rituals become very important when your child goes to school, but it is never too early to start a ritual.

Remind Your Child That You Always Return

Each time you say goodbye, tell your child that you will return. You can simply say "mommy will be back later" or "parents always come back." It is important for kids to hear and eventually grasp that parents always return. Daniel Tiger has a great episode with a catchy song reminding children that "Grown-Ups Come Back."

Do Not Sneak Off 

Although you might think sneaking out will help you avoid a meltdown, it won't. Sneaking out is tricking your child and sends a confusing message. Instead, make a plan with your caregiver to redirect your child's attention if a meltdown starts with a song, favorite toy or whatever you choose. Then say your quick goodbye and walk out. 

Do Not Give In to a Meltdown

Try your best to not return back when your child starts crying and reaching for you. Coming back in after you have left only gives your child incentive to cry harder and longer next time. As hard as it may be for you, try to remember that sticking with your departure plan is the right thing to do to help your child's development.

If you need to come back (say, you forgot your car keys), repeat the goodbye ritual and remind your child that you will come back. Be as specific as you can about when you will return, using phrases your child will understand: "You are going to have such a fun day with Grandpa. Mama has to go to work, but Mama will see you after dinner! Parents always come back. I love you!" Give a hug and kiss and be on your way.

1 Source
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  1. Nemours KidsHealth. Separation anxiety.

By Jill Ceder, LMSW, JD
Jill Ceder, LMSW, JD is a psychotherapist working with women, children, adolescents, couples and families.