The MHS Journals

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What is Fear of Abandonment & How Can it Be Healed?

Feb 24, 2020

How Abandonment Happens

For healthy development to occur, children need physical and emotional love and care. When those needs go unmet, abandonment issues can happen. Abandonment develops when a person doesn’t have the physical and psychological presence of a significant person or people. Death and divorce are two everyday situations that can result in feelings of abandonment. While often rooted in childhood, abandonment issues can appear in adults as well, and they take different forms.

Physical abandonment means that a person’s physical needs are neglected, unmet, or unaddressed. For children, this can take many forms:

  • A lack of supervision
  • Insufficient amounts of food
  • An ineffective shelter that lacks heat or protection from the elements
  • A lack of appropriate clothing
  • A lack of safety and security, including protection from abuse, either physical, sexual, or both

Another type of abandonment is emotional, which happens when parents or caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide a child with a supportive environment for emotional development. The child may feel as if he or she must hide some part of the identity to avoid rejection or gain acceptance. Those who don’t know how to effectively cope with issues related to abandonment may experience:

  • Unrealistic expectations or feelings that mistakes are not allowed
  • Repressed emotions or a belief that displaying feelings is inappropriate
  • Prioritization of others needs above their own or the idea that needs are a sign of weakness
  • A lack of pride in accomplishments or feeling that success is somehow inappropriate or unimportant
  • Stifling of creativity or ridiculing creative expression

Emotional abandonment can also happen when a child cannot meet a parent or caregiver’s expectations, especially if those standards are not realistic for the child’s developmental stage. Another common occurrence with abandonment is that a child takes responsibility for another person’s (often a parent’s) actions, feelings, or behaviors.


Effects of Abandonment

Long-term abandonment makes a person more likely to struggle with mental health issues, such as mood disorders and reduced ability to control anger. These behaviors may damage close relationships, reinforcing feelings of failure and worthlessness. Abandonment fears can impair the ability to trust others, creating anxiety and depression, along with codependency and borderline personality. These problematic relationships reinforce the person’s belief that he or she is unworthy of love and inadequate.


Abandonment Anxiety

Even adults not abandoned as children can experience abandonment as adults. Losing a life partner through separation, death, or divorce can mimic the childhood loss of a parent.


How Abandonment Affects Relationships

Every kind of relationship, whether it’s intimate, work-related, or a friendship, can be impaired by abandonment, even when no actual neglect occurs. Here are a few everyday examples of fear of abandonment:

  • A person who fears abandonment may have trust issues and be extremely suspicious and insecure. This person may believe that a faithful partner is having an affair.
  • A person dealing with abandonment issues may be anxious much of the time and have an unrealistic fear that something terrible will happen to a loved one or that a loved one will leave.
  • This person may emotionally suffocate a partner with love and affection and be upset when the partner doesn’t reciprocate at the same level.
  • A person with abandonment fears may envy other people’s relationships to the point of obsession.
  • A person experiencing abandonment issues may find it challenging to develop emotionally intimate relationships, settling instead for shallow connections that lack commitment.
  • A person fearing abandonment may be controlling.


Children and Attachment

Children have very little control of how safe or adequate their home is and depend on adults for that security. Some level of abandonment fears is normal, as young children often display concern when a parent leaves the room or drops them off at daycare. This behavior is a normal part of childhood and is usually not problematic. Instead, these fears may demonstrate the ability to form a secure attachment to parents or caregivers, indicative of growing social skills.

However, the long-term or chronic absence of physical and emotional support from a parent or caregiver can lead to extreme internal fears in the form of abandoned child syndrome. This collection of difficulties includes isolation, addiction, low self-confidence, and other unhealthy ways of relating to the world. If it happens regularly, abandonment results in toxic stress and shame, leaving the child believing that the world is inherently unsafe.

Abandoned children may find it difficult to trust others and may feel unworthy of love and care. The child may experience abandonment if he or she feels rejected as a whole person rather, as opposed to feeling as if a particular behavior was rejected. For example, if a parent tells a child that he is worthless for getting a low grade on one assignment, this can be a form of abandonment.
Abandonment in childhood can often lead to issues with boundaries in relationships:

  • A parent may violate a child’s boundaries by refusing to see the child as a separate and independent individual. The parent may instead expect the child to be an extension of him or herself.
  • A parent may place responsibility for his or her feelings and actions on a child.
  • A parent may take credit for a child’s accomplishments and see those victories as a boost to his or her self-esteem.
  • A parent may treat a child as an adult or peer, discounting a proper parent-child relationship.

Children who experience abandonment may grow up to repeat these unhealthy behaviors with their partners and children. However, many adults can learn to recognize these maladaptive traits to break the cycle.


Healing Abandonment Issues Through Therapy

Therapy can be useful in dealing with abandonment issues, even when the treatment started for another reason that appears unrelated on the surface. Professionals trained in addressing abandonment focus on helping clients separate childhood abandonment from present realities. This kind of understanding minimizes the power of abandonment fears. Several specific therapies can address abandonment issues.

In children who are demonstrating signs of abandonment, it’s possible to address symptoms early in life. Reassuring the child that he or she is loved and wanted and essential is one step. Helping the child understand the daily routines of the household can be beneficial as well.


Self-Care Tip

If a person experiences abandonment as a child, it is important to understand that this is not a reflection of how good or valuable or worthy of love the child is. Neglect is a reflection on the person who leaves or fails to care for the child properly. That person may be struggling with stress or a feeling of being overwhelmed with life’s challenges, leaving them unable to attend to the needs of others.

Learning the art of self-care can help you meet your own needs so that you are better able to care for those you love. Past abandonment doesn’t doom you to a lifetime of unhealthy relationships. Reach out to the professionals at Mental Health Systems, PC (MHS) to begin the journey to healing for yourself or someone you love. Our team of highly-trained professionals offers services from assessment to therapy and more, all in a caring and compassionate environment.

Image Credit: Getty/Florin Cristian Ailenei