When you hear the words “abandonment,” do you think of a parent leaving and never returning? Or of a spouse walking out and never coming back? If those pictures do come to mind, then you’re thinking of what is called physical abandonment. But, did you know that you can actually be abandoned by someone even when they’re still physically present? This type of abandonment is called emotional abandonment, and that’s what we’re unpacking today.
In today’s article, we’re going to explore what emotional abandonment is in a child/parent relationship, the effects of emotional abandonment in childhood, the effects of emotional abandonment in adult relationships, causes of emotional abandonment in childhood, insecure attachment styles resulting from emotional abandonment in childhood, and different treatment options.
What is Emotional Abandonment?
According to Psychology Today, emotional abandonment occurs when parents do not provide the emotional conditions and the emotional environment for healthy development.
Essentially, it’s when your emotional needs are not being met, and you feel like you must hide a part of yourself in order to be accepted.
For example, here is a list of some emotional needs:
- To be listened to and understood
- To be appreciated and valued
- To be respected
- To be accepted
- To be shown affection, love, and companionship
- To be nurtured
When parents are unable to be present emotionally and meet their children’s emotional needs, this is considered emotional abandonment. Not being emotionally present as a parent may look like:
- Not allowing the child to make a mistake and expecting perfection.
- Not allowing the child to show their feelings or being told how they feel isn’t true.
- Reinforcing that it’s not okay to have needs and that the needs of others are more important than the child’s.
- Reinforcing that success is bad by discounting the child’s accomplishments or not acknowledging them.
Most of the time, emotional abandonment displays itself in undefined boundaries such as:
- When parents don’t see their children as their own people with distinct boundaries
- When parents expect children to be an extension of themselves
- When parents don’t take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors but expect their children to take responsibility for their own
- When a parent feeds their own self-esteem through their child’s behavior
- When children are treated as peers by their parent
The Effects on Childhood
One meta-study showed that more than 18% of children suffer from emotional neglect or abandonment. Children who suffer from emotional abandonment oftentimes feel unloved and unwanted, and this can have lasting consequences.
The effects of emotional abandonment in children may manifest themselves as such:
- Failure to thrive
- Fear of being alone
- Experiencing intense worry or panic
- Getting sick often due to stress
- Concentration issues
- Developmental delays
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Heightened sensitivity to rejection
- Dissociative tendencies
- Shame or guilt around emotions
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse issues as they get older
- Higher risk of running away from home
- Emotional disorders
Causes of Emotional Abandonment in Childhood
Have you ever heard the saying, “hurt people hurt people”? The sad and unfortunate reality about parents who emotionally neglect their children is that they are often hurting and struggling themselves. Those hurts that the parent carries are often what lead to emotional neglect.
Parents may not even realize that this is what they’re emotionally doing to their children, especially if the parent is struggling with their own mental illness, extreme stress, spousal abuse, or financial hardship.
If you have ever experienced emotional neglect from a parent, you may be eager to know the reason why for their actions. Below is a list of reasons why parents may emotionally neglect their children:
- The parent was abused or abandoned themselves and doesn’t know how to nurture a child
- Addiction, depression, or other mental illnesses
- Extreme stress or violence in the home
The Effects on Adult Relationships
Children who are emotionally abandoned eventually grow up, and symptoms of that abandonment tend to surface within their adult relationships. If you are experiencing any of the below as an adult, it may be a sign that you experienced emotional abandonment in childhood:
- Needing to control or be controlled by your partner
- Settling for an unsatisfactory or unhealthy relationship
- Feeling insecure about relationships
- Being overly jealous in relationships
- Giving too much or being overly eager to please others
- Trust issues
- Having difficulty with emotional intimacy
Insecure Attachment Styles
It’s true that while someone with a history of emotional abandonment may struggle in future relationships, healing and growth are possible. A major part of healing from past emotional neglect is obtaining self-awareness of how the above effects are playing out in your day-to-day relationships.
As an adult who has experienced emotional abandonment in childhood, abandonment issues can present themselves in three insecure attachment styles: avoidant, anxious, or disorganized. Let’s take a deeper dive into all three insecure attachment styles below.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Those who have an avoidant attachment style have a very hard time opening up and trusting others. They typically don’t allow a lot of people to get close to them. Those with an avoidant attachment style may appear distant, overly private, or withdrawn.
Anxious Attachment Style
Those who have an anxious attachment style try to cope with their childhood emotional abandonment by developing intensely close relationships. This person may be considered codependent in their relationships with others and often feel anxious when they’re not with their partner.
People who have an anxious attachment style are often more emotionally reactive. But at the same time, they don’t want to create conflict for fear of their partner leaving.
Disorganized Attachment Style
People with a disorganized attachment style find it hard to remain intimate and close with someone and often are very inconsistent in their relationships. This person may feel very anxious being in a relationship and want to avoid closeness with someone, while at the same time craving connection.
How to Treat Emotional Abandonment
It can feel frustrating, confusing, and sad to realize that you may struggle with the effects of emotional abandonment in childhood. But please know, that there is always hope for healing.
Treatment options are available for those who struggle with this, and it is possible to cultivate healthy and lasting relationships. The two treatment options that we are going to unpack today are self-care and mental health counseling. Let’s take a look below.
Because those who suffered from emotional abandonment did not have their emotional needs met, it’s vital that they make their emotional needs a priority in their adult life. Self-care, when done in a healthy way, is not selfish. Think about it this way: you can’t be there for other people if you are not first taking care of yourself on a physical, emotional, and mental level.
Self-care requires self-compassion and gentleness and an awareness of what you are needing in each season of life. Some self-care practices may include:
- Regular physical activity
- Meditation or deep breathing
- Investing in your faith
- Immersing yourself in community
- Prioritizing hobbies that you love
- Monitoring your screen time
- Eating healthy foods
- Drinking enough water and staying hydrated
- Prioritizing adequate hours of sleep and making time for rest
Prioritizing self-care teaches you how to listen to your life and yourself. What is your body needing? How is your mental health? How are you feeling? Self-care is about learning how to ask yourself these questions and then engaging in activities that fill up your emotional, physical, and mental tank so you’re not running on empty.
Christian Counseling for Emotional Abandonment
Seeking out a mental health counselor or therapist is a wonderful first step toward healing from the effects of emotional abandonment in childhood. In those counseling sessions, you will be able to explore the root cause of any fears you have about relationships and identify negative thought patterns.
As you work with a counselor, you will learn how to set healthy boundaries in relationships and avoid unhealthy behaviors that may hinder any future relationships. You will learn coping skills to overcome fear, anxiety, and resentment that you may carry toward your parent.
Our goal is to create a safe space for you to explore all of these things and more from a biblical perspective. If you feel stuck and are wanting to heal and move forward, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or one of the other counselors in the online directory.
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