Abandonment fears typically stem from childhood loss, such as the loss of a parent through death or divorce, but they can also result from inadequate physical or emotional care. These early-childhood experiences can lead to a fear of being abandoned by the significant people in one's adult life.
Some degree of abandonment fear may be a normal part of being human, but when the fear of abandonment is severe, frequent, and difficult to ease, it can cause significant impairment, particularly with regard to the development of healthy relationships. When this is the case, the support of a therapist or counselor may be recommended.
Healthy development requires adequate physical and emotional care, and unmet needs can result in feelings of abandonment. Sometimes experiences of abandonment can constitute a traumatic event in a person's life. The death of a parent can be a traumatic event for a child, as can the inability to feel safe due to threatening circumstances such as physical or sexual abuse or the lack of adequate shelter.
A pattern of emotional neglect can be traumatic and may also qualify as a form of abandonment. Emotional neglect can occur when children are raised by parents who stifle their children’s emotional expression, ridicule them, or hold them to unreasonably high standards, or when parents rely too heavily on children for their own sense of worth or treat them as peers.
Adults who did not experience abandonment as children may still be challenged by feelings associated with abandonment if they lose an intimate partner to separation, divorce, or death. Whether an act of abandonment occurs in childhood or adulthood, the impact can be pervasive, negatively affecting every relationship developed in a person's life, whether those relationships are intimate, social, or professional.
A person who has experienced abandonment is often more likely to encounter long-term psychological challenges. These concerns are typically based primarily on the fear that abandonment will recur. A child who was physically abandoned by a parent or caregiver may struggle with mood swings or anger throughout life, and these behaviors may alienate potential intimate partners and friends. When a child does not receive adequate emotional support from a parent, perhaps due to the parent’s own psychological issues, the child may not develop healthy self-esteem.
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Abandonment fears can impair a person’s ability to trust others, feel worthy, or experience intimacy. They may lead a person to experience anxiety, depression, codependence, or other difficulties. A person who lacks self-esteem as a result of childhood abandonment may gravitate toward romantic partners and friends who reinforce those negative beliefs.
Many people pursue therapy in order to address issues resulting from experiences of abandonment. In the process of addressing a person’s present psychological problem, therapy may reveal the source of the issue to be trauma associated with childhood abandonment.
A therapist or counselor can often help a person learn to separate fears of the past from the reality of the present. It may be possible for individuals to achieve cognitive transformation through this process and thus develop more positive reactions and realistic expectations for their lives. When individuals are able to recognize their fears are rooted in the past, they can often begin to develop the ability to minimize the way fear controls their emotional responses to current relationships and events and achieve healing from past experiences.
Many types of therapy, from eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to dialectical behavior therapy, can address abandonment issues. Psychotherapy for abandonment often focuses on helping a person address and tend, in a self-compassionate way, to the parts of the self holding on to the memories and feelings associated with abandonment trauma. This form of self-exploration might include distinguishing the vulnerable, helpless child of the past from the stronger, more capable adult. Simply pursuing treatment with an attentive, empathic therapist can often help soothe a person’s abandonment fears.
Abandonment issues can be overwhelming, but individuals challenged by these fears can frequently learn to manage them in ways that are healthy and productive. Methods of addressing and overcoming abandonment issues might include:
- Exploring ways to care for the self
- Developing the ability to access a safe and calm "center" when fears threaten one's sense of safety or security
- Learning to successfully communicate needs in intimate relationships
- Building a sense of trust in others
- Adopted child's feelings of abandonment: Jerome, age 15, is getting in physical altercations with other students and finding his schoolwork challenging. The school counselor begins meeting with him twice each week to work on anger management and help him improve his performance and behavior at school. During sessions with the school counselor, Jerome reveals strong feelings of anger and resentment, eventually opening up about feelings he has suppressed regarding his adoption as a young child. Jerome identifies resentment toward his birth parents for giving him up but expresses his desire to see them again, regardless of this resentment. The school counselor invites Jerome's adoptive family in for a meeting to help them better understand what Jerome is going through and explore ways to support Jerome. Jerome and his adoptive family make plans to help him reach out to to his birth family, while addressing how to proceed if his biological family does not agree to the meeting. Jerome also signs a behavior contract with the school counselor that includes goals for improving his behavior at school.
- Schoenfelder, E. N., Sandler, I. N., Wolchik, S., & MacKinnon, D. (2011). Quality of social relationships and the development of depression in parentally-bereaved youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(1), 85-96. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/821697890?accountid=1229
- Wade, B. (1995, 04). Fear of abandonment. Essence, 25, 79. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/223174140?accountid=1229
Last updated: 03-25-2016
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