Abandonment fears typically stem from a loss in childhood, such as the loss of a parent through death or divorce, but they can also result from inadequate physical or emotional care. In adulthood, these early-childhood experiences result in fear of being abandoned by the significant people in one’s life. While some degree of abandonment fear may be a normal part of being human, when the fear of abandonment is severe, frequent, and impossible to comfort, it can cause significant impairment, particularly with regard to developing healthy relationships.
A person who has experienced abandonment is likely to encounter long-term psychological challenges, based primarily on the fear that abandonment will recur. For example, 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. People with low self-esteem often seek out partners and friends who reinforce those negative beliefs. Abandonment fears can impair a person’s ability to trust others, feel worthy, or experience intimacy, and may cause a person to struggle with anxiety, depression, codependence, or other difficulties.
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 a lack of adequate shelter. A pattern of emotional neglect may also qualify as traumatic. This can occur when children are raised by parents who stifle their children’s emotional expression, ridicule them, hold them to unreasonably high standards, or in contrast, those who rely too heavily on their children as peers or for their own sense of worth.
In addition, adults who may not have experienced abandonment as children may struggle with 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 that follows in that person's life, whether intimate, social, or professional.
Many people pursue therapy in order to address issues that have resulted from experiences of abandonment. Sometimes, in the process of addressing a person’s present psychological problem, therapy reveals that the source of the issue is in fact trauma associated with childhood abandonment. Working with a therapist, a person can learn to separate fears of the past from the present, setting the stage for cognitive transformation so that he or she can develop more positive reactions and realistic expectations for their lives. Healing occurs when people begin to recognize that their fears are rooted in the past and develop the ability to minimize the way fear controls their emotional responses to current relationships and events.
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Any type of therapy, from eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to dialectical behavior therapy, can address abandonment issues, and psychotherapy for abandonment is often focused on helping a person tend in a self-compassionate way to the parts of oneself that hold the memories and feelings associated with abandonment trauma. This can include distinguishing the vulnerable, helpless child of the past from the adult who is much stronger and more capable today. Often, the experience of therapy alone can help to soothe a person’s abandonment fears as the therapist remains attentive to and demonstrates empathy for the client. Individuals who struggle with overwhelming abandonment issues can learn to manage them in a healthy and productive way. Learning to care for oneself, access a safe and calm center, communicate one’s needs in intimate relationships, and develop trust for other people are all part of overcoming serious abandonment fears.
- Adopted child's feelings of abandonment: Jerome, age 15, is struggling at school and getting in physical altercations with other students. The school counselor begins meeting with him twice per week to work on anger management and improving his performance and behavior at school. During sessions with the school counselor, Jerome reveals strong feelings of anger and resentment. In the course of their time together, Jerome opens up about feelings he has suppressed regarding being adopted as a young child. Jerome identifies resentment toward his birth parents for giving him up, as well as wishes to get to meet with his biological parents again, whom he has not seen since the adoption. The school counselor invites Jerome's adoptive family in for a meeting to better understand and support Jerome. Jerome and his adoptive family make plans for Jerome to 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.
Have you had personal experience with abandonment? Want to share your insight with others? Readers are invited to submit their personal stories about abandonment to GoodTherapy.org's Share Your Story. Selected stories will be published on The Good Therapy Blog.
- 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: 07-02-2015