WITS Talks: Saying Goodbye: Creating Healthy Transitions with Michele Lansing, MA, MS Ed., LCSW

By Ellen Werner, Program Director

When it comes time to saying goodbye, we can often be at a loss for words. Creating a healthy and supportive transition can feel difficult, but with the right information and time for reflection, we can feel more comfortable navigating these key moments. In her WITS Talk, “Saying Goodbye: Creating Successful Transitions,” Michele Lansing, MA, MS Ed., LCSW examines the complex factors that contribute to an individual’s reactions to endings.

The full video of the WITS Talk above. Read on for an interview with Michele and additional resources for saying goodbye to students.

Could you tell me a little more about your background and what you do now at JPA?

I used to be a teacher. I taught in Brooklyn, New York and what I found was that my students were fantastic and strong. They were so inspirational and yet they came in with both hands tied behind their back because of what was going on in their lives. I believe that education is the way for a person to broaden their options and change their own fate. If you walk into school with hands tied behind your back you can’t do that. I went back to grad school to figure out how I might be a better support to kids to help them untie their own hands. I went for my Master’s in Social Work here in Chicago, and then did some work with survivors of sexual assault at the YWCA, worked at Heartland Alliance, and now am here at JPA.

My official title right now is Director of Connect. Connect is JPA’s training and consulting services for adults who work with kids.

Why is it so important to address goodbyes and to allow children to express their feelings about transitions?

We as a society don’t generally handle endings, changes, and transitions in healthy ways. We do a lot of things to cover them up, ignore them, or run away from them. There’s even a phrase for it now, to “ghost” somebody. It’s become so commonplace that it’s part of our pop culture that you just disappear without saying goodbye. Any change or transition can be difficult, especially for kids. It’s important that we, as adults, do the extra work to help support kids and help them process, especially before a “goodbye.” Adults can help kids develop the skill of saying goodbye so that they can have a healthy goodbye with us and with other people in the future. As cliché as it sounds, hopefully we can change the way of goodbyes.

Can you elaborate on what you said in your talk about kids feeling sad versus mad?

“Sad” is a very helpless, passive feeling. It’s not often a comfortable place to be. Compare that to “mad” or “angry” where you’re actively engaging in something: it feels more powerful. There’s some adrenaline that goes with that. So given the choice between sad and mad we often move our feelings from “sad” to “mad.” You especially see this with kids: they’d rather be mad than talk about their hurt feelings. When we see angry behavior, it can be helpful to think, “What’s the ‘sad’ behind this?”

I think so many people could benefit from thinking about using “and” when they’re responding to children – can you explain that idea?

Most of us present an idea and then follow it up with a “but.” “I know you’re feeling really sad, BUT this feeling won’t last forever.” “It’s so hard to say goodbye, BUT just think how fun this summer will be.” We dismiss or minimize the first clause about the person’s feelings. Instead, we can use AND to hold both to be true. So, if you’re saying goodbye to a teacher and you’re looking forward to something in the summer, you can really miss that teacher AND look forward to the summer. It’s not that looking forward to the summer dismisses or minimizes missing the teacher.

It’s the smallest change that I can suggest. It is hard to do because it is so ingrained in our language. As hard as it is, if you put some attention to that three-letter word your whole world starts to change and open up.

Is there anything that adults should not say to a child who is going through a tough time?

Try not to make promises you can’t keep. If you are not one hundred percent sure you can keep a promise, say “I promise to try…” Or even better, “I plan to…”

I think we feel that promising something makes it all better. But ultimately we’re just delaying and intensifying the hurt if we can’t follow through on that promise.

 What can adults say to children who they might never see again that are positive and affirm the time they’ve spent together?

As much as possible, stick to the limit. Say things like, “I’m going to think about you.” “I’m going to hold you in my thoughts.” For kids I feel really connected with I might say “I’ll hold you in my heart.” That might sound a little too kitschy to you. Use language that feels authentic to you to talk about how you are going to remember them. Talk about how other things will remind you of that kid you know. “Every time I see Daffy Duck I’m going to think of you, because you do that great Daffy Duck voice.”

I love that. We give books to our students at the end of the year with the hope that when they read them they will think of their mentors. You mentioned that you have a one-year-old. How has being a parent influenced your work, or has it influenced your work?

Absolutely. If only because I’m now doing it on less sleep.

I think it’s forced me to be more present. Any working parent or caregiver knows that there’s just not enough of them to go around. When I’m working directly with a kid who’s not my own, I try as much as possible to be present during that moment because I know I just don’t have the capacity to stay at work as long as I used to. And same when I’m at home, I try to really be present with my son as much as possible because I know that I also have to go to work.

I think the other thing is that I’ve always tried to have empathy for caregivers. I think it’s such a difficult job, taking care of kids in any capacity. It takes so much work and patience – you’re molding a human. Being a parent just has me be doubling down on that feeling, since I’m experiencing it myself.

Do you find that your work and your background influencing your parenting?

I mean, I’m the parent who drops their kid off at daycare and says, “Be kind and empathic!” as I walk away. I’m a social worker at my core and I’m also a human. So I have moments where I get frustrated, and I have compassion for caregivers who yell at kids, who get angry, who lose it, because we’re all just human. And you get pushed in that way. But I like to think sometimes my training can help.

What are some of your favorite books, for children or adults?

I’m a huge fan of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It’s a great book for kids. It’s a great book for adults, too, especially those who work with kids. I use it in my work a lot and in my personal life, just thinking about self care, and boundaries, and limits. Ultimately I think the pressures we put ourselves to help somebody else should be less about the things we give, and more about being there, the consistency of the relationship. It’s a reminder that children just need one caring adult and that’s what makes the difference.

I’m a sucker for Winnie the Pooh, and have recently been reading a lot of Little Blue Truck and Pout Pout Fish.

I’m also a huge fan of Lisa Delpit. She has a lot of interesting, approachable writing on the intersection of race and education.

I’m currently reading a book called The Dalai Lama’s Cat. It’s fiction, it’s told from the perspective of the cat. So it’s kind of insights to Buddhism from the cat’s perspective but also there’s some humor to it.

Do you have any recommendations for websites or books where we can learn more about what you’ve taught us about youth and wrapping up relationships?

Bruce Perry wrote a book called The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. It’s a very intense book: it’s a collection of vignettes about work he’s done specifically related to trauma. They’re all pretty approachable and easy to understand. I think his perspective of trauma in the brain gives a lot of insight to working not just with kids, but with all people. We have to remember trauma isn’t just the big bad scary things that they show on Law and Order SVU. It’s anything that exceeds our resources for coping.

So, Bruce Perry is a great resource, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (www.nctsn.org), and JPA (www.jpachicago.org). JPA has a newsletter with tips, and an “Ask Jane” column where caregivers or any adult can write in and ask their questions and get responses. And people are welcome to email me directly with questions, we are all about relationships here, so they should feel free to reach out (mlansing@jpachicago.org)