Fear of Abandonment: The Lasting Effects of Trauma

Katie is having trouble letting her 14-year-old son do things on his own, like riding his bicycle to school with friends, spending the night at a buddy’s house, or walking home from soccer practice. She knows she should start trusting him to be on his own so he can develop into an independent young man, but she just can’t seem to let go. Katie’s mother wasn’t there for her emotionally growing up. And her two older brothers received all of her mother’s attention, getting special treatment and affection while Katie was left to fend for herself, forcing her to grow up quickly and alone. Katie struggled with her fears of abandonment, and it’s evident in the way she overprotects her son.

Abandonment issues can stem from many root causes although they usually follow a traumatic event from childhood. Loss of a parent, divorce, and inadequate physical or emotional care can all create worries about being left. These strong feelings can remain into adulthood, and affect our relationships with those closest to us.

Death and Divorce

The loss of a parent, especially early in life, can make children anxious and fearful about being left alone. They may not understand that the remaining parent is returning after a long work trip or a day at the office, and see that as abandonment. Children are hard-wired to attach to their caretakers, and when those caretakers are gone, confusion and hurt set in. We learn how to develop personal relationships by modeling the adults present in our early years, and if those important influences are gone, the ability to create important relationships can be stunted.

Divorce can create similar feelings. Natalie’s mom and dad were always there for her during the first six years of her life, but now she lives with her mom full time. Her parents divorced and her dad has a new family, one with three little kids. Natalie sees her father one weekend a month, but it’s a far cry from what she’s used to. When Natalie is with her father, his attention is divided and Natalie feels lonely. She doesn’t understand why her dad isn’t around as much and she worries that she might have done something to cause her parents split.

Even if a child has both parents present growing up, having a roof overhead and food on the table is not enough. If parents do not give the child’s emotional needs a high priority it can be just as devastating as losing a parent. Being neglected physically can be harmful as well. Parents have a responsibility to care for the physical and emotional needs of their children, and if those needs are not met the children may feel as if they aren’t worth being cared for.

In adults, an unwanted separation or divorce can cause feelings of abandonment. The spouse who is left behind often feels unworthy of love, not completely comprehending why the marriage is over. Even the death of a loved one can feel like abandonment to the person left behind.

Psychological Effects of Abandonment

Low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness, striving for perfection, and avoiding conflict can all be the result of abandonment issues. Children who grew up in less than ideal households may feel unlovable and sabotage meaningful adult relationships by pushing people away. Others may fear conflict so intensely that they will avoid confrontation at all times, sidestepping important conversations to feel more comfortable or agreeing to do things they may not want to. Fear of abandonment may also cause adults to strive for perfection in relationships, something that is certainly achievable and causes feelings of inadequacy and failure.

For those with children, their parenting may be affected by their abandonment fears. They may have problems letting go or trusting their children to do things on their own. They may try to prevent children from experiencing pain by trying to control every minute detail of their lives.

How to Help

Abandonment issues, while extremely common, can be dealt with. Be aware of your feelings and remind yourself that your childhood should not control how you live, love, or raise your children.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Give your self-esteem a boost by writing down positive things about yourself.
  • Make time to grieve. It is the first step to moving on.
  • Recognize your negative or toxic emotions, such as guilt and anger, and confront them by looking for the more vulnerable emotions underneath the surface, such as sadness and worry.
  • Ask friends and family to help you come up with more appropriate coping skills and be there to support you on the rough days.

The long-term emotional affects of abandonment are strong and the hurt is deep. If your past is haunting your present, and you feel that professional advice would help, please feel free to contact me.

Cover photo: Xabier.M flickr