09/28/2010 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Walking Away, Look Back

Have you ever confidently told your kids to "just walk away" from a difficult situation, while secretly -- and silently -- hoping that you gave the right advice for the long run?

As a strategy, walking away makes sense some of the time ... but not always. And, despite the popular saying, it's often tremendously important to look back.

This goes for kids, and it goes for adults. This means that we, as adults, do well to reflect on walking away and looking back so we can feel more confident teaching our children what to do.

There are two main challenges associated with walking away:

  • Discerning whether to turn around and leave, or dig your heels in and stay.
  • Deciding what to do later, if/when you look back.

Walking away works as an immediate first response to acute situations that are unsafe -- physically, mentally and emotionally. If a group of bullies calls your kid nasty names, s/he should get some distance then and there. If someone tries to hit you, move away fast. If a relationship gets too intense, take some space as soon as possible. Your kids' safety, like your own, comes first.

If you can stay present and work safely with a difficult situation, then it might be constructive to stay put. If there's a confrontation, but no danger, remaining present might well be the best choice, because walking away removes you from asserting your perspective. If your kid is bullied, teaching him or her how to respond directly might be the most effective immediate and preventative strategy. Likewise, if your boss is acting unpleasantly, but not unsafely, the most constructive response might not involve fleeing.

Obviously, we have to pick our battles. Sometimes it's best to work within a difficult situation and other times its best to simply leave it alone. But, if you decide to leave, then consider what "walking away" means to you, in that moment. How do you feel inside when you have the experience of facing an ugly reality and deciding to walk away -- and what might you do about those feelings? What you can do to decrease the likelihood that the same situation reoccurs?

Reflecting on "walking away" involves exploring whether the future might be different and if so, what you can do to make that vision a reality.

From your side, you can examine the circumstances of the situation from which you walked away. Mindfulness, or paying attention to current moment experience, is useful. So too is cultivating self-awareness. The more you are attuned to your gut instincts and feelings, the more sensitive and responsive you'll be to what's happening in and around you.

External support is also powerful, and it begins with knowing when and how to get assistance from allies. If your kid is bullied, you've got to teach your kid how to get help at school and model getting that help by accompanying your child to see the teachers, counselors and/or principal. If your boss is abusive, do what's necessary to be safe and then file a complaint. If the kids next door beat up your kid, figure out who can help you make sure it doesn't happen again.

Believing that you deserve to have advocates leads to finding them. Advocates can be friends and family, and they can be professionals -- such as school personnel, law enforcement or medical providers. For many of us, the first step allowing someone we already trust to act on our behalf by helping us access appropriate professional advocates. This is one way to transform looking back into walking towards a healthier, safer future.

Walking away is a physical action, as well as emotionally and mentally symbolic. It can feel empowering, and it also can hurt deep down inside. It's miserable to realize that other people have the power to make certain places or situations effectively "off-limits" for you. And it helps to consider how you can rectify this unfairness -- either when you're there face to face with it or after you've stayed safe by walking away. That's the time to look back.

We need to teach our children to "walk away" when doing so is right, and "stay put" when they can. They need to understand that their immediate safety comes first, but that promoting healthy and safe community norms is ultimately as important. Kids need to know that they can contribute to a safer society in many ways -- by walking away and then looking back, as well as by staying put.

Ultimately, we need to build communities in which no one needs to walk away. Doing so requires skill and wisdom. And sometimes, it requires "walking away" while looking back, in order to return with confidence and support so you won't need leave again.