Understanding Abandonment Trauma

Published on: 15 Sep 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
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Stable, nurturing relationships are essential to healthy development and can provide us with a sense of security. When someone feels like they’ve been abandoned, it can leave them with lasting trauma. 

Abandonment trauma can interfere with emotional development and make it difficult to form stable relationships. Understanding as much as possible about abandonment trauma symptoms and how they impact your life can make healing easier. Keep reading to learn more. 

What is Abandonment Trauma?

Abandonment trauma can be defined as the behavior and emotional response that someone has as a result of experiencing severe neglect or harm in the form of abandonment. It can happen at any time in life and feeling physically or emotionally neglected can be deeply painful. While trauma may occur after one specific instance of physical or emotional abandonment, it can also result from both perceived and unintentional abandonment. 

“Abandonment trauma can, of course, vary from person to person, but it may include emotional and psychological pain associated with memories of being left behind, emotionally neglected, hurt, or abandoned. It can also bring about intensely distressing and emotional pain somatically. If you have experienced trauma, you can work with a therapist to support you in processing your experience. There are many caring mental health professionals who want to help you.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C

Not everyone reacts to abandonment similarly, and being abandoned won’t always result in traumatic stress. That said, it’s important to recognize the damaging effects of abandonment and the lasting distress it can cause.

Its Impact on Mental Well-Being

Abandonment trauma can significantly impact your mental well-being, and the time period it occurs in your life can be a determining factor in how it affects you later. 

Childhood abandonment trauma 

The bonds we form with caregivers during childhood greatly influence how we connect with others as adults. When a child experiences abandonment trauma, they may learn to believe that they can’t rely on others to meet their needs. These experiences can leave children with a strong fear of abandonment or abandonment anxiety that interferes with their ability to form healthy relationships with others. They may develop attachment issues after a traumatic event which prevents them from forming healthy adult relationships when they grow up.

Effects on development and emotions

Studies have shown that traumatic experiences surrounding abandonment in childhood can interfere with brain development, increasing the risk of developing mental health conditions later in life. 

Research has also determined that children with an insecure attachment style, which can form as the result of childhood abandonment trauma, are more likely to be diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions, including, among other things: 

It’s also associated with increased rates of depression and antisocial behavior. 

“Symptoms of abandonment trauma can include extreme insecurity or anxiety within a relationship, obsessive or intrusive thoughts of being abandoned, and also debilitating self-esteem or self regard.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C

When children feel abandoned, it can leave them feeling frightened and unsafe. They may worry that their basic needs won’t be met or feel the abandonment is their fault. Ultimately, it can damage their sense of self-worth, causing problems throughout adolescence and well into adulthood if not addressed. 

Adult abandonment trauma 

Although it may seem that abandonment trauma is more likely to occur during childhood, adults can also go through traumatic experiences caused by abandonment. Abusive relationships, divorce, or the death of a partner can all be triggers for abandonment trauma in adulthood.

Effects on development and emotions

Traumatic experiences related to abandonment in adulthood can have an adverse effect on adult relationships. Adults who fear abandonment are more likely to self-sabotage and may struggle to trust others.  

“Children and adults, of course, may manifest similar emotions and concerns with regard to abandonment trauma, but because of different phases of development, they may contrast with behaviors. Common themes for both can include mistrust of others and feeling inadequate or ashamed within relationships.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C

Causes of Abandonment Trauma 

Abandonment trauma can occur after any distressing experience that causes someone to feel neglected, isolated, or unsafe. This trauma may be the reaction to a single event, or it can result from an ongoing pattern of behavior. Common causes of abandonment trauma include:

Emotionally unavailable parent/partner

When a parent or partner consistently fails to respond to emotional needs, it can make someone feel their feelings don’t matter. Experiencing emotional unavailability can make it difficult to regulate emotions and cause people to become emotionally distant or very clingy and needy.

Childhood neglect 

Neglect is sadly a common type of childhood abuse and is frequently a source of abandonment trauma. When caregivers fail to meet a child’s basic needs, it can interfere with healthy development, leading to lifelong consequences. Childhood neglect can occur for many reasons, including poor parenting skills and substance abuse.

Family instability 

Family instability can disrupt a child’s development and interfere with their sense of security. This could include divorce, financial issues, housing, or food insecurity. When children don’t have a stable living environment, it can make them feel like they could be abandoned at any time. 

Death/serious illness in parent/guardian 

Losing a parent or guardian during childhood can create a lasting fear of abandonment. Research shows that abandonment trauma can occur after the death of a caregiver.

Similarly, when a parent has a serious illness, it can lead to these fears as well, even if they ultimately survive. Death and illness are always distressing, but these experiences can be especially difficult for children to cope with. 

Signs of Abandonment Trauma

Abandonment trauma can affect everyone differently, but some specific behaviors can be strong indicators it’s what you may be dealing with. Common abandonment trauma symptoms include:

Fear of being left alone

It’s normal for young children to experience separation anxiety. However, when someone has abandonment trauma, that fear of being separated from loved ones can become debilitating, continuing throughout childhood and persisting into adulthood. Spending time alone might cause significant distress, and the fear of being left behind can become a source of extreme anxiety.

Inability to form healthy relationships 

When a child is abandoned or neglected by caregivers, they may form an insecure attachment style that makes it difficult to form healthy relationships with others, even in adulthood. People with abandonment issues and attachment issues often either push others away or engage in smothering behaviors alienating those closest to them.

Anxiety and depression

Traumatic stress (which can result from abandonment issues) is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression. For many people with abandonment trauma, the fear of abandonment can be overwhelming. Anxiety can sometimes become so severe that it causes insomnia or nightmares. The anxiety and depression linked to previous abandonment can be overwhelming, interfering in several aspects of life. 

Performance difficulty 

Often people with abandonment trauma struggle to manage their emotions or healthily relate to others. These symptoms can interfere with school or work performance.  

How to Cope With Abandonment Trauma

Abandonment trauma symptoms can worsen without treatment. Thankfully, there are many ways to treat and manage abandonment trauma. Coping mechanisms can help reduce the day-to-day impact this has on your life.

Self care

People struggling with abandonment trauma often have low self-esteem and may feel their needs don’t matter. Self-care can improve your overall physical and mental health and enhance your sense of self. 

For example, daily affirmations, mindfulness meditation, and positive self-talk can all help you see yourself and your worth in a more positive light. When you know that you deserve better, you can begin to release some of the abandonment fear you have about being neglected. 

Lifestyle changes

Simple, positive lifestyle changes can boost your mental health and give you the strength you need to heal from abandonment trauma. 

A healthy diet, exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule can improve your mood and your body’s ability to respond to stress related to abandonment trauma symptoms. You may also want to consider ending or changing unhealthy relationships in your life.

Therapy 

Abandonment trauma can leave you with lasting scars. If trying to cope feels impossible or just too daunting, a mental health professional can provide you with guidance and support. 

An online therapist can help work with you to treat the symptoms that interfere with your daily life. We’ll help you with coping strategies so you can learn how to heal abandonment issues. If you experience abandonment issues or are dating someone with abandonment issues, seek help through online therapy. You can heal, and you deserve support along the way to build lasting, healthy, committed relationships without the fear of being abandoned again. 

Get connected with a therapist at Talkspace today.

Sources:

1. De Bellis M, Zisk A. The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2014;23(2):185-222. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968319/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

2. Kerns K, Brumariu L. Is Insecure Parent-Child Attachment a Risk Factor for the Development of Anxiety in Childhood or Adolescence?. Child Dev Perspect. 2013;8(1):12-17. doi:10.1111/cdep.12054. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3960076/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

3. Wylock J, Borghini A, Slama H, Delvenne V. Child attachment and ADHD: a systematic review. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2021. doi:10.1007/s00787-021-01773-y. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33844103/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

4. Lee A, Hankin B. Insecure Attachment, Dysfunctional Attitudes, and Low Self-Esteem Predicting Prospective Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety During Adolescence. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. 2009;38(2):219-231. doi:10.1080/15374410802698396. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2741157/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

5. Peel R, Caltabiano N. The relationship sabotage scale: an evaluation of factor analyses and constructive validity. BMC Psychol. 2021;9(1). doi:10.1186/s40359-021-00644-0. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8449894/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

6. Wolchik S, Tein J, Sandler I, Ayers T. Stressors, Quality of the Child–Caregiver Relationship, and Children’s Mental Health Problems After Parental Death: The Mediating Role of Self-System Beliefs. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2006;34(2):212-229. doi:10.1007/s10802-005-9016-5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16502140/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

7. Bremner J. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(4):445-461. doi:10.31887/dcns.2006.8.4/jbremner. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/. Accessed August 16, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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