Helping Our Children Say Goodbye With Grace

by Siobhan E Brown



As warm breezes blow into Shanghai we are reminded that each season gives way to another and time never stands still, not even for a moment. Having children makes us more in tune with the passage of time, as we buy new clothes for growing bodies, box up “baby toys” and mark our children’s height on the wall, watching as the pencil lines slowly creep up the door frames. 


One of the realities of life as an expat is having to say goodbye to good friends year after year. For those of us that have been in Shanghai for any extended period of time, we may sometimes find ourselves dreading when spring gives way to summer. Friends, neighbors and colleagues announce their departure dates with surprising frequency, and goodbye parties begin to fill our calendars.


As much as this is a reality for expats, it never gets easier, especially when our children grow older, and become more in tune with how their Shanghai friends now live scattered across the globe. They may even begin to question when it will be their turn to pack their bags and start a new adventure in a different city. How we handle this time of change with our children is extremely important. As adults we suffer a little each time a good friend leaves, but we are aware of how contracts work, assignments end, and the call from a home country is sometimes stronger than any one reason to stay. While the emotional toll of saying goodbye can be difficult, we understand that nothing remains the same in this city filled with transition and in a world supported by global markets.


As an expat whose family now enters their sixth year I’m more aware than I care to mention of how difficult goodbyes can be. Last year I said goodbye to 6 friends and this year, before the school year even came to a close, we have already said goodbye to 3. I looked at pictures recently of our Thanksgiving dinner 2 years ago, and realized with some sadness, that all the families in the picture have left. While I understand the circumstances behind each move, my four year old son process things as a child does, and he sometimes grows resentful of why he has to say goodbye so often. Each fall he struggles to return to the same school that is filled with new and strange faces. His 7 year old cousin who lives in Canada has been going to the same school, same summer camp, and same dance class, with the same children that she has known since she was an infant. These children have strong and unbreakable bonds that can only come with the passage of time and endless shared experiences. He longs to have this, and of course I long for him to have this feeling of stability too. As expats our children do not always experience the same level of stability or predictability as their cousins or friends back home. What we need to remind ourselves is that we are giving them other invaluable experiences that will shape the rest of their lives in a positive way. Regardless, the question then presents itself, how can we help them to process and adapt to this endless change, in a positive and healthy manner? Here are a list of tips I have picked up along the way, and some that have been shared with me by friends who have also moved and/or said goodbye often:


  • Discuss with children how important change is (my son loves the caterpillar to butterfly analogy)


  • Involve children in the goodbye process. Allow them to help with goodbye party planning, writing a card, making a memory book, drawing a goodbye picture or purchasing a goodbye gift. 


  • Model the behavior you would like your children to exhibit, be supportive of your friends who are moving, discuss how positive the change is, make a plan to visit.


  • Help your child empathize with their friend who must move. Discuss how difficult this time must be for them, having to say goodbye to friends, teachers, schools and neighborhoods. Ask how they think we can help our friends, with encouraging words and support. 


  • Buy a world map and place pins in it each time friends leave, discuss how fortunate we are to have friends all over the world to visit.


  • Include your children and set up Skype calls, check Facebook and Instagram posts, send WhatsApp, WeChat videos, and stay in touch with friends who have left. 


  • Bring a little bit of your home country to Shanghai, ask family and friends from back home to visit and put a calendar of visitors somewhere children can see it. Discuss often who is coming to Shanghai, places you want to take them too, new foods you want them to try, people you want them to meet.


  • Buy books for you children on moving and read them together e.g. “My Best Friend Moved Away” by Nancy Carlson.


  • Discuss how lucky we are to remain in our familiar surroundings but continue our adventure abroad. Make exciting plans for the following school year. Make a list of all the things we love about Shanghai.


 By providing children with coping skills, and teaching them to say goodbye with grace, we give them a gift that continues to give, year after year. Only then can they embrace the new and exciting experiences and challenges that await them in the fall.