Abandonment issues involve a deep fear of being hurt, rejected or abandoned. The fear of abandonment is a type of anxiety that often stems from childhood loss, or other traumatic experiences, like abuse and neglect.
In order for us to grow up healthily, there are physical and emotional needs that should be met, and feelings of abandonment are a result of these unmet needs.
Everyone has to deal with losses like the death of a loved one, or an end of a relationship since loss is bound to happen in life. However, people with abandonment issues have a deep fear of these losses, and may initiate an end of a relationship just to avoid an unexpected loss.
Signs and Symptoms
(Please note that the list of mentioned signs/symptoms is not exhaustive and differs for everyone.)
Children may become unsettled and upset when facing separation from their parents, even if the separation doesn’t last too long, for example, dropping them off at school, or parents going to work. This level of reaction is mostly natural, and children are unlikely to be affected long-term by these worries. However, when children show the following signs, it is possible that they have underlying abandonment issues.
Separation anxiety or clinging: The child may have a strong fear of abandonment when they express their worries or anxiety in advance regarding a short separation with their parents.
Panic: If the child shows panic or dread of separation with their parents, this strong reaction may be a symptom.
Difficulty regulating emotions: The child may be easily upset, have more frequent outbursts and tantrums, and act negatively in order to get attention.
Fear of being alone: The child may refuse to sleep alone at night, not allow their parents to be in another room, and show a strong dependency on adults in general.
Antisocial behaviors: In more serious situations, the child may demonstrate antisocial behaviors such as boycotting or bullying peers, and withdrawing from their usual social circle.
As for adults, even if they didn’t experience abandonment as children, people who have lost loved ones or had relationships that ended on a bad note may still show signs of abandonment issues as follows.
Unwilling to end an unhealthy relationship: Even if they know it isn’t right and healthy to continue the relationship, they don’t end the relationship due to the strong fear of being alone.
Isolation: Some people are unwilling to open up to others, withdrawing and pushing people away, making it difficult to form intimate relationships.
Engage in shallow relationships: Some may go into one relationship after the next really quickly without the chance to build a deeper bond with the other person and initiate the end of a relationship due to their fear of intimacy.
Demand of emotional guarantees: Some may constantly need emotional reassurance from friends and family, asking for statements like “I will always be by your side”, in order to convince themselves that they won’t be abandoned.
Causes and Risk Factors
As aforementioned, abandonment issues mainly stem from childhood trauma, like abandonment or neglect (emotional abandonment).
According to British psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, a child is able to develop a sense of security if their caregivers are responsive to their needs. The child knows that they can depend on their caregivers and feels safe and secure. These interactions actually help determine if one develops a secure or insecure attachment style, and their chance of having a fear of abandonment.
Secure attachment style means one is able to open up to others and form intimate relationships, while insecure attachment style means one remains in a state of anxiety and distress, setting up barriers and unwilling to connect with others.
Emotional abandonment occurs when parents:
Don’t allow their children to express
Ridicule or mock their children
Put too much pressure on their children to reach their “perfect” standards
Use their children to increase their self worth
Treat their children like peers
Other causes include:
Abuse: Those who have been abused, abandoned or neglected are more likely to develop abandonment issues, and those who went through these as children are likely to repeat these actions to their children, creating a cycle.
Stress: High stress levels naturally worsens anxiety, affecting other fears or anxieties (including the fear of abandonment).
Trauma: Those who have faced injuries, death or crime are comparatively more likely to develop abandonment issues.
Poverty: Poverty makes it difficult for people to even meet their basic needs, leading to a mindset that emotional aspects like love and friendship are also limited, relating to abandonment fear.
Effects and Risk Factors
Abandonment issues stemming from childhood mostly are related to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), potentially traumatic events occurring between the ages of 0-17. This affects their sense of safety, stability and bonding as they grow up, and sometimes linking to mental health issues, since ACEs lead children to think negatively about themselves based on their insecure attachment as well as abandonment fears.
Due to the fear that abandonment will occur again, some may deal with low self esteem, anger issues and mood swings later on in their life, potentially affecting relationships with their significant other, family and friends, as well as their own education and job opportunities. The anxiety that abandonment issues cause makes it hard for them to trust and open up to others, increasing chances of depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder.
To treat abandonment issues, first identify and understand the triggers in order to be able to withdraw from situations where they are present. Taking slow steps to open up with trusted ones about your fears may also help if you’re comfortable talking to them. There are two main treatments for abandonment issues:
Self care: This may sound simple, but by practicing self care, you are meeting your emotional needs and taking care of yourself. Prioritizing your mental health helps stabilize your mental state, making it easier for you to get along with others, improving relationships. Simple actions that focus on yourself and make you feel better count as self care, such as going for a walk, taking a warm bath, getting a break from your duties etc.
Therapy: Talking to a professional will help you understand the root cause of your fears, identify negative thought patterns and decide on what to do when the fear arises. Seeking help will eventually help you overcome these fears, and avoid actions that hamper healthy relationships.
To finish, whether it be you or your loved ones who are facing abandonment issues, please know that you are valid and supported. The recovery process may be long, tiring and difficult, but please trust that you will get there.
Researcher: Charlotte Leung; Editor + Thumbnail: Hailey Wong; Text Transcription: Megan Kwok