Experiencing emotional abandonment in childhood can make us feel anxious, distrustful, ashamed, and inadequate – and these feelings often follow us into adulthood and make it difficult for us to form healthy, trusting relationships. In this article, you’ll learn how to begin healing the psychological effects of abandonment.
What is emotional abandonment?
Emotional abandonment means that someone important, someone you are counting on, isn’t there for you emotionally.
Children rely on their parents to meet their physical and emotional needs. And because young children are completely dependent on their parents, abandonment has a profound effect on them.
The difference between physical abandonment and emotional abandonment
Physical abandonment is when a parent or caregiver isn’t physically present or doesn’t meet their child’s physical needs. Physical abandonment includes: a mother abandoning her baby at the police station, a parent not being physically present due to losing custody, being incarcerated, or traveling extensively for work, and it also includes leaving young children unsupervised and not protecting them from abuse or danger.
If your parents physically abandoned you, they also emotionally abandoned you. However, emotional abandonment often occurs without physical abandonment.
Emotional abandonment is when a parent or caregiver doesn’t attend to their child’s emotional needs. This includes not noticing their child’s feelings and validating them, not showing love, encouragement, or support. Like Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), emotional abandonment is about what didn’t happen – it’s the loss of emotional connection and the loss of having your emotional needs met.
It’s possible that your parents provided for all of your physical needs – you had a warm place to live, food in the refrigerator, clothes that fit, medicine when you were physically sick – but they ignored your emotional needs.
Emotional abandonment is even more common than physical abandonment. This can happen when parents are physically present, but not emotionally available to their children.
Parents emotionally abandon their children for a variety of reasons. Often there’s a lot of stress and chaos in the family, such as violence, verbal abuse, or a parent struggling with addiction or mental illness. And sometimes parents are distracted by other things – caretaking a sick family member, grief, financial problems or other major stressors that deplete their emotional reserves. And, as a result, the child’s needs get ignored.
If you were emotionally abandoned, it’s likely that your parents were also emotionally abandoned as children. If they never learned how to understand, express, and attend to their own or other people’s feelings, they probably repeated the pattern with you because they never learned about the importance of feelings and emotional attunement.
Abandonment also happens when parents have unrealistic expectations for their children, such as expecting a six-year-old to care for an infant sibling. Parents may or may not recognize that this is developmentally beyond what a six-year-old can reasonably do (and will leave a six-year-old feeling overwhelmed, afraid, exhausted, etc.). Again, this happens because a parent isn’t paying attention or because it’s what was expected of them as children.
How does emotional abandonment affect children?
Abandonment is loss. And when it happens repeatedly it’s traumatic.
Abandonment is an extremely painful experience for children. We feel rejected and can’t understand why our parents aren’t available and attentive.
And in order to make sense of their behavior, we assume we’ve done something wrong to repel our parents. We come to believe we’re unworthy of their love and attention – and these feelings become internalized as shame, a deep sense of being inadequate and unlovable.
Abandonment leads to anxiety and difficulty trusting people
Children depend on their parents or caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs. So, when your parents don’t reliably meet your needs – whether it’s your need for food and shelter or your need for emotional support and validation – you learn that others aren’t trustworthy, that you can’t count on others to be there for you.
Chronic childhood abandonment can create a generalized feeling of insecurity — a belief that the world isn’t safe and people aren’t dependable. This can cause us to anticipate and fear abandonment, rejection, and betrayal in our adult relationships.
You may even find yourself repeating a pattern of choosing emotionally unavailable partners or friends who abandon or betray you. This is an unconscious pattern of choosing what’s familiar and what we think we deserve, and a deep desire to recreate the past with a different outcome and thus, prove that we are lovable.
Abandonment leads to feeling unworthy and ashamed
It’s a parent’s job to take care of their children. But children can’t possibly understand why their parents don’t act in loving ways towards them. Their limited reasoning abilities lead them to erroneously conclude that they are the reason for their parent’s rejection – they aren’t worthy of their parent’s love, they aren’t good enough — or their parents would notice them, listen to them, and care about them.
How do children cope with feelings of shame and inadequacy that result from abandonment?
Children internalize these experiences as shame, which is the belief that I’m wrong or bad and I’m unworthy of love, protection, and attention. So, abandoned children learn to suppress their feelings, needs, interests, and parts of their personalities in order to feel acceptable.
Some children become people-pleasers and perfectionists – afraid to speak up for fear of displeasing or being a nuisance, chasing accomplishments such as perfect grades, sports trophies, or other awards to prove they’re worthy. You learned that in order to be accepted and loved, you can’t make any mistakes, act up, need anything, or express any negative or vulnerable emotions.
And many emotionally abandoned children become depressed and anxious; they act out their pain by hurting themselves or others, breaking rules, and numbing their feelings with drugs and alcohol. None of these attempts to cope – people-pleasing, perfectionism, self-harm, or drugs – can ever fill the hole left by a lack of unconditional love and acceptance from your parents.
How can we heal shame and unworthiness?
1) Rewire your thinking
In order to heal from feelings of shame and unworthiness, we need to correct the false beliefs that we continue to believe and use to define ourselves. Below are a few new ways of thinking. You might find it helpful to read them over regularly, adding or changing them to better fit your needs.
- Childhood abandonment was not my fault. My parents weren’t able to understand and attend to my emotional needs. That was a failing on their part, not mine.
- My emotional needs are valid. It’s normal to feel a wide range of feelings and express them in healthy ways.
- My feelings of unworthiness are based on false assumptions that I made as a child. Over the years, I’ve looked for evidence to reinforce this belief. But now I can look for and find evidence that I have good qualities.
2) Share it
We also know that shame lives in our secrets. We don’t usually talk about the things we’re ashamed of because we’re afraid doing so will lead to more blame and rejection. However, when we can talk about our shame to a safe, trustworthy person, it begins to lessen. A therapist, 12-step group, or religious or spiritual leader, may provide a safe space. A therapist can also help you challenge the underlying false beliefs that have been supporting your shame.
3) Validate your needs
Emotional abandonment tells you that your needs don’t matter. This isn’t true and it’s essential that we correct this idea by telling ourselves repeatedly that our needs are legitimate – just like everyone else’s.
Because it doesn’t come naturally to us, we have to create a new habit of identifying our feelings and needs. Perhaps, try writing them down at a couple of predetermined times throughout the day (such as at mealtimes). Once we’re aware of them, we can then meet more of our own needs and we can take the uncomfortable, yet essential, step of telling our loved ones what we need from them.
Read more about self-validation in this article.
4) Love yourself
Emotional abandonment also tells you that you’re unlovable. The best way to start healing is to love yourself more.
How often do you say kind things to yourself? Do you encourage yourself to try new things and challenge yourself? Do you notice your progress and effort? Do you comfort yourself in healthy ways when you’re sad? Do you treat your body in loving ways? Do you value self-care? Do you surround yourself with supportive people? Do you invest in things that will increase your happiness, health, and wellbeing?
Read more about learning to love yourself in this article.
These are just some of the loving things you can do for yourself. If you know how to treat your friends or children with love, then you know how to do it for yourself. It just takes intention and practice!
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Canva.com.
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10 thoughts on “Healing the Psychological Effects of Abandonment”
Very helpful and supportive article. Mind opening
I’ve a question. I understand all this. I understand and have acknowledged my emotional abandonment to all 3 of my kids. They are grown now. I realize the huge and horrible mistakes I have made. I have realized it for years. I’ve validated this to them, my daughter more so. The horrors and failing of myself as a mother has kept me in therapy. I cannot get past forgiving myself. I break down, I go into my deep dark ugly place and at times, I want to die because of the shame and hurt I’ve caused my kids.
My daughter knows this, as we’ve talked about it. Yet, when something really trips her trigger, she goes off on me and throws this trip back on me yet again. When she’s over it, she talks to me of self healing. HOW CAN I HEAL and move forward and forgive myself when out of the blue at anything unexpected, this is back in my face again?
We are now going through yet another hard time and just 2 nights ago, she pulled the ” I was abandoned as a little girl”. I get it. I understand. I’m trying and thought over the years I was making progress in being there for her as an adult and as a grandmother. I’ve felt like I have bent over to the best of my abilities to make up to her (yet knowing it can never be made up), but at this point, I’m feeling like a loser that will never get ahead of this much less past it.
Hi Angela, I am not doctor and I’m very young. So if you see this, take it all with a grain of salt. This is my personal take :))
I am 20 years old and I have some past trauma resurfacing itself. My situation with my parents sounds different from your relationship with your daughter. But I do know this:
It’s hard me too accept a lot of my feelings or do anything past analyzing them. A lot of this comes from the fact that my parents are good people. The way you described your mental state is the exact reason I still won’t talk to my parents. I still don’t know if I want to; there isn’t much a parent can do to change the past. If my mother was completely aware of my condition now, I think she would be painfully guilty. And I don’t want her to be. I just want her to validate how I feel. But it isn’t necessarily in her character to do that. I believe my mom has trauma from her parents just as much, if not more, than I do from mine. Much of her behavior,
I pin to that. So if I DID end up telling her everything, maybe she wouldn’t even read into it for a second. That possibility prohibits me from bettering our relationship everyday.
My point is, what you shared here are words I would give anything to hear from my parents. I don’t need them to do better and try to fix it, but to just at least believe me that I am hurt. It seems as though we are in opposite situations and could share some perspective with each other.
Hopefully, your daughter is in therapy too. I think that if I was her, it would be beneficial to hear from you that you are so, so sorry (as you have already made clear) but that the past will not change and you are here and with her now and you have changed. You never prepare to be a parent that wasn’t good enough to your child. This is a journey for you as much as it is her, and it is up to her whether or not she can have you in her life and still treat you correctly. This may not be easy for her and she may not feel like she can or should be respectful to you a lot of the time, but that doesn’t make it right to mistreat you. She doesn’t have to be respectful and kind to you, but that needs to be a choice she makes, completely aware of the fact that she would be choosing to let you go. I’m not saying leave her and stop being there for her if she doesn’t cooperate. I’m saying that she is either capable of healing with you, or she isn’t— and she needs to communicate that with you! It’s scary! I should really do the same with my mom!
The fact that she even tried to talk to you in the first place gives me the feeling that she will be responsive to you offering to leave her be in a very good way. No matter what comes from it, you will know you did the very most you could, while taking care of yourself, too. Typing this has made me realize it’s time to do what I can for my parents and our relationship, and know that my expectations are realistic and I’m entitled to them, and be ready to take care of myself without them if they are not receptive toward my new boundaries. I hope everything works out for you and your daughter.
I used to do this to my mom. I would always when in anger. She was alcoholic, drug addict and when taken to jail because her and my dad were abusive to each other. This in turn made me a very hurt adult. After she passed and my dad too, I stopped blaming her. It wasn’t her fault she had trauma from childhood. Sometimes, it’s hard for children to understand parents hurt. Like the article above said that you were probably mistreated as a child. She needs to stop it before it’s too late. She will live with a world of regret. I know she’s hurting. Wish you the best.
The fact that you acknowledge this with your children and you have chosen the path to heal is beautiful and difficult I’m sure, but this choice shows your strength. You can try find solace in this when times are hard. We are all only human, if you knew another way when the kids were young you would have done things differently, but how could you have. The past shapes us and pushes us to endure so we may grow wiser, more compassionate and find the tools to build healthy relationships with our self and others. It is living. experiencing, loving and growing as an individual that opens up knowledge which can empower new ways. Just like you have grown and changed so will your children. Have faith in every step you take forward and remind them that you just like them were not shown another way. You must grow together. You clearly love your children and have not given up. The hard choice us often the right one and I know one day your children will appreciate all that you do now. The gift of life alone is enough to be grateful for each day and you gave that to your children. Relationships take time, effort and understanding. Your children will someday realize we are all equal and you just like any other person deserve love, forgiveness and healing. Don’t give up, I admire your dedication to healing. I experienced abandonment as a child and I remember when I turned 21 I thought to my self how horrifying it would be to have twin babies like my single mother did. She was not ready to raise a child let alone 2. Our father is not someone she was close with and he has never been a part of our lives. She did all she could and above all she choose to have us, I get to live and I am loved. Guidance and support will never exist from mom, but I forgive her because I am lucky to be alive. instead of feeling like I was put at a disadvantage b/c of my parental situation I have learned to seek guidance and support from other good souls and I have never gone without. All the love and support we need exist if we open up to it. Good people far a few between but when you find them you hang onto them. Trust your intuition and believe deeply in a brighter future. Let your light shine, your children will feel it. They are children they don’t realize they are hurting someone who is trying to heal.
I have looked at my parents upbringing. I think it’s important to see the source of our feelings of abandonment and why we were treated this way. This is in no way condoning how we were treated but has helped me in moving forward. My mother was abandoned by her mother at age 7 and her mother married again and even named one of her children the same name as my mother. My mother had numerous women relatives in and out of the family home bringing up my mother. My father’s father was away at sea for most of the year and dad’s mother bought dad and his two siblings up mostly on her own. Both of my parents had disrupted upbringings with primary caretakers in and out of their lives. However, they did not deal with their issues and were emotionally immature. They expected us kids to fill the void which has lead to all sorts of issues within the family. They never looked into their own childhood woundings. No blame here as these days we are able to access a lot more information than they could.
This explains so much. Tha k you a million times over for writing it. It has strung together all of my experiences and actions and feelings into one cohesive package. It all makes sense now. I’m going to carry on doing EMDR but not I can do it with more motivation and clarity. 🙏
I didn’t know when I was girl
The reason I couldn’t tell you who I am
I wanted to be anyone else but me and
I felt so confined and unknown
That is all I thought and I hated how I felt
I just smiled so you couldn’t see
And I have a great smile. And none asked.
Now I’m trying to understand who the poor girl was
how I felt and let that finally (is that possible) go and not let it be now
I’m a sad person really inside I have a lot of hurt and pain and
I have carried a long time. How can someone love somebody like that
I can and I need to learn how. Fuck everyone else.
I thought I have dealt with this but I guess not
Here it is again.
I have a friend struggling psychologically because of abandonment, and I know how hard it is to overcome, so I always give a talk to all my friends when they are emotional. A simple word and showing them that you care for them are simple, yet essential to them. Thanks for sharing this excellent article. Great post!
Well written. The effects of abandoning a child is so profound since I now have a child of my own.