Helping Children Say Goodbye Without Distracting

Recently, I was doing some work with my dear friend, Kelly Matthews, thinking about the challenge that families and educators feel at this time of year with children who feel the pain of good-byes.

We were talking about typical approaches to separation anxiety, and talked of using toys when children are sad…like this:

The family leaves, the child cries, the care provider brings a toy or shakes a rattle:

“You’re okay. Mommy will be back soon. Don’t cry. Come over here and let’s play with this BIG TOWER! WOW! Look at all this COOL ART!” Think sing-songy voice, raised eyebrows, exaggerated smile…

Kelly made a really insightful comment. She said:

Toys serve as emotional distractions, and if children don’t learn to manage strong emotional feelings when they are young in healthy ways, what things will substitute for toys as children grow up?

I called her to talk in more detail about this idea, and with her permission, I transcribed our conversation.


Kelly: First, I have to say that this idea has developed over years of practice and thought, influenced by Magda Gerber and Haim Ginott. I don’t recall exactly where the idea started, but I believe it was through their work.

Years ago, I was working in Iowa City in a Head Start program. A new child came to us and started with us for the first time (transition #1). His parents were in the middle of a divorce (transition #2). And if that wasn’t enough transitions at one time, his home had just burned down (transition #3).

At drop off every morning, he would cry, and we would talk. One day, I didn’t try to make him do anything. I didn’t distract him from what he was feeling. I simply asked him if he would like to sit by the window and watch for his mom and dad to come back. He said yes. Our classroom was on the second story, and sitting by the window, he could see the parking lot. I got him a chair and he sat there all day.

It felt inauthentic to have him to anything else. To try and lure him over to the art corner to paint. To have him playing with toys or reading books. What could possibly be more important for this little boy than to sit and watch for the most important person in his life to come back?

Emily: What a moment. How powerful.

not-happy-1480797Kelly: Children who feel big feelings when their loved ones leave are in need. What happens when we use toys to distract children is that they feels like no one understands them. When kids don’t feel understood, they feel unimportant. Like we don’t know their big sadness.

Emily: It also must feel so scary. Like the powerful adults in their lives are oblivious to their sorrow.

Kelly: But that’s the thing. Adults are not oblivious. They know exactly what’s going on. They see the tears, the clenched fists, and the sorrow, but they do exactly the opposite. They try to entice children with toys or shake rattles or try to end the crying as soon as possible. Those acts of trying to calm children by distracting them from their sorrow, in effect, is communicating to them that what they are feeling is not happening.

Truthfully, we know that they are upset. We see it. And yet we act like the opposite is happening. We act like upset children are giving us cues that they are ready to play when it is clear that they are not at all ready to play.

Emily: It seems to me like one of the hallmarks of American parenting (and I say “American” parenting because my experience with other cultures is limited enough that I don’t know what this looks like in other cultures) is the desire to pacify the crying. Like our gauge for knowing if a child is fine is if they are not crying. In reality, when we distract a child from their strong emotions when their loved ones leave, we may be removing the crying, but we are not actually helping a child find emotional balance. If anything, we are teaching the child to connect with things that help disengage.

Kelly: We are modeling disengagement at their most vulnerable times.

Emily: So what do you do? How do you connect with a child who is crying?

Kelly: First, stop telling children that they are okay. One of the most common things to say to crying children is “Shhh…you’re okay.” The fact is that they are not okay. They are crying. Instead, help them begin to find language for their strong emotions.

Start by sportscasting their physical experience: “I see that you are crying. Your fists are really tight and your face is red.”

Next, offer a guess as to why they are upset. Often, we have a pretty clear idea: “You are sad because your Daddy had to leave.”

Then, offer a moment of connection: “I hear you. It’s hard to leave the ones we love.”

Last, suggest a tool to help mitigate the strong feelings: “Is there something that I can do that would help you feel comforted?”

  • “Would you like me to sit beside you?”
  • “Would you like a cool washcloth for your face?”
  • “Would you like to read a book together?”
  • With older children, I would ask, “Would you like to be left alone for a little bit? I will come and check on you in a moment to see if you are okay?”

Tom Hunter talked of relationship building. He used the term “keeping company” to mean sitting with a child without distracting the child. I really connect with this phrase. We have the power to affirm a child’s emotional experience through presence.

I don’t like the term separation anxiety and instead, look for ways to help children feel connected, both with their families and with the community in their care settings.

Emily: We don’t distract children when they are sad about their families leaving, because it’s okay—normal!— to be sad when loved ones go away. That sorrow is a sign of connection. I am sad when I am away from my loved ones, but I have lots of years of experience of knowing how that separation will resolve. Children are still learning what to expect.

As we model healthy reactions to the emotional pain of leaving, we affirm for children that their sorrow is real and important, and they learn to honor it, too.


KellyKelly Matthews is the owner of A Place for You Consulting in Oshkosh, WI, loves the playful mindfulness of improvisation, promotes experiential learning & adores combining these two passions in her innovative offerings of professional development around the country.   She can be reached at .

Kelly has also contributed several other pieces on my blog in the past. See them here, or here, or here.

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An EXCITING Announcement from Emily Plank

IMG_5604So, you may have noticed that I’ve been a little absent lately. There’s a good reason.

Friends and faithful readers, I am so excited to share with you that over the past year… I have written a book!

My book looks at childhood through the eyes of children, exploring what they are really doing when they pretend to play with guns, or say things like “no boys allowed,” or resist clean up time. It examines the interaction between adults and the children they work with, and tries to amplify the voices of children in those interactions.

I am so excited to share this news with you. I still have work ahead in the editing process, as well as nailing down details like a title and fancy cover art. I am thrilled to be working with the wonderful team at Redleaf Press to bring this book to print.

Thank you for your consistent and loving support in reading my blog; your encouragement led me to believe in my abilities as a writer. Please continue to follow me here, on Facebook, and on Twitter for updates.

I’ll keep you posted!

<3 Emily

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Hands Free LIFE! An interview and giveaway with Rachel Macy Stafford

Unsaved Preview DocumentSeveral months ago, I received an email from Rachel Macy Stafford asking if I would be willing to read an advance copy of her new book, Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, & Loving More. I was honored! I have been a long-time reader of Hands Free Mama, and admirer of the work that Rachel does to help parents and families live intentionally, free of technological distractions. Her first book, Hands Free Mama, became an instant best-seller, striking a chord with mothers who desire to live more simply.

I found Hands Free Life to be a superbly readable and practical book, full of simple take-aways that empower families to engage with each other in intentional ways. Always hopeful, the book challenges readers to make new choices without binding them in guilt to the choices they made in the past.

Today, I am excited today to bring you this interview with Rachel, along with a chance to win her new book before you can buy it!  As you read, you will find my questions in bold. At the end of the Q&A are instructions for how to enter to win!  Continue reading

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The Biggest Problem with Child Care In The United States (A Follow Up Discussion)

debateMy blog is a place for ideas. I am a fervent believer in refining ideas in community, and I had a chance to do that this week with my friends and fellow early childhood educators, Kelly Matthews and Ijumaa Jordan.

I want to share a conversation with you that I had with these thoughtful and reflective leaders in the field of early childhood education. Our discussion began following my blog post from last week called, “The Biggest Problem with Child Care in the United States.” In the discussion that follows, Kelly and Ijumaa dialogue with me about what they see as the biggest problems facing child care in the United States.

The dialogue that follows will make more sense if you’ve read the first post. Please take the time to leave me your thoughts in the comments below. What do you see as the biggest problems facing child care in the United States


Continue reading

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The Biggest Problem with Child Care in the United States

statueI read a sarcastic Craigslist post a few months ago that was circling among my educator cohort titled “Free Child Care.”  (I’ve looked for it since and can’t find it to link…you’ll have to use your imaginations.)  The post attempted, in witty tongue-in-cheek fashion, to illuminate the problem of child care costs by itemizing the actual cost of providing care for a child.  The writer was clever and the post struck a chord with my fellow educators, the sentiment being, Why do clients complain so much about the cost of child care?  Don’t they realize how little we make and how much we do?? 

On the other hand, I have friends in my parenting circles who want more children but choose against it (or choose to delay having other children), because they can’t afford the cost of child care.  Many of my fellow family child care providers had other careers before having children of their own, and then the cost of child care was too expensive for them to work.  They quit their jobs and opened their own child care programs.  They wonder, How can I pay for child care? The costs of placing my children in a child care program take up my entire paycheck.  How am I supposed to survive? Continue reading

Categories: Caregivers, Community Support, Wisdom | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

No Longer At Odds With Toddlers

IIMG_6117t snowed a few weeks ago in Lausanne; a beautiful dusting that covered everything with an inch of wet snow.

As I walked my son to preschool, I noticed something that made me smile.  The sidewalks had been cleared, and yet every stretch of snow remaining on the edges had tracks of footprints.  Made by child-sized feet.  I watched, smiling, as my son did what the toddler before him had done…march boldly in the fresh blankets of snow.

There was a wide swath of cleared pavement to choose from.  He didn’t need to walk in the snow.  Nor did the child Continue reading

Categories: Caregivers, communication, Emotional Development, Toddlers | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Dear Nationwide: Your Commercial Was Terrible. Here’s Why.

IMG_5456Last week was the Super Bowl, and one of the highlights every year are the commercials.  Nationwide Insurance gained notoriety for the commercial they ran which featured a dead child reflecting on everything he missed out on because he died in an accident.  The commercial has received lots of negative attention for very important reasons.

Spokespeople from the insurance company continue to stand behind the commercial, stating that the purpose was to raise awareness about the danger of household accidents. My intention was to post this letter one week ago immediately following the Super Bowl, but it took me days to put my thoughts on paper.  I have poured more hours into this single blog post than probably any post in the history of my blog. I believe that Nationwide did two critical things wrong Continue reading

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My 10 Most Influential Books

Two years ago, I published a list of my ten most influential people.  Since then, I have had requests to publish a similar list of my most influential books.  Without further ado…

Books Continue reading

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No More “Magic Words”

ThanksgivingAs a culture, we are obsessed with manners. In our product-oriented society where parents and care providers feel judged by the actions of children, we feel that we are doing a good job when our children are polite.

Why do we care so much? Why is it necessary for our children to use manners in the first place? Why do we care if our children say “please” and “thank you?” Continue reading

Categories: Community Support, Emotional Development, Guidance, Respect, Social Development | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Let’s Expect Different

IMG_5299Yesterday, I was taking my son to preschool when a store employee gifted him a small stuffed-dog keychain.  He was beyond thrilled.  He spent the rest of the walk to preschool rolling it over and over in his hand, examining the twist tie holding it to an index card, and noting the tag sewn into the dog’s foot. He talked to me non-stop about his plans for the dog, how his Continue reading

Categories: Emotional Development, Guidance, Respect | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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