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Childhood trauma

Abandonment Trauma (Explaining through examples)

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14 min

Abandonment Trauma (Explaining through examples)

Ever feel like your partner is packing their bags behind your back? Do you constantly need reassurance that they actually care and still love you? Is insecurity nagging at you? If you answer yes to all of these, it could be a sign of abandonment trauma.

Feeling abandoned is a universal experience. It might be childhood neglect, a parent who wasn’t always there, or a friend who disappeared. These experiences can leave a lasting mark, making us feel insecure, anxious, and desperate for reassurance in our adult relationships.

It is important to recognize how these experiences might influence our relationships and current emotional state.

This article will break down what abandonment trauma is, why it happens, and how to move forward with healthier relationships.

What is abandonment trauma?

The trauma of abandonment is a complex emotional response stemming from experiences of neglect, rejection, or loss. These events can happen at any point in life but are often rooted in childhood trauma. Also, abandonment trauma can be a reason mother wound and father wound.

Imagine a little kid whose grown-up isn’t always around, is emotionally distant, or is just kind of unpredictable. That child might feel insecure and constantly worry about being left behind. Why? Because those fundamental love, safety, and connection needs aren’t always met. 

In his book “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” New York Times bestselling author John Bradshaw states, “Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.

Maybe this child’s parent struggles with substance abuse and is frequently unavailable, or perhaps a parent goes through a difficult divorce and becomes emotionally withdrawn. Kids may feel anxious in these situations and wonder if their parents actually love and need them. This is where abandonment issues come in.

What are abandonment issues?

Basically, abandonment issues are the long-lasting effects of unresolved trauma that have an impact on a person’s emotions, behavior, and thoughts. 

You might also have an insecure attachment style, like becoming anxious when your partner is unavailable or far away or pushing people away for fear of getting hurt again.

This is where abandonment issues arise as a defense mechanism, a way to try and protect yourself from getting hurt again. This might look like needing more connection with people, which can lead to trust issues.

In a nutshell, attachment issues can be the root cause of abandonment issues. You may ask, “Ain’t it the same?” Nope, it’s not. So, let’s see the difference between these two.

Attachment & abandonment issues 

Abandonment and attachment issues can manifest in various ways, affecting self-esteem, ability to trust others, and overall well-being.

Both definitions are connected to how we form relationships with others, but they have slightly different experiences.

Attachment issues develop in early childhood when a child’s caregivers are inconsistent or emotionally and physically unavailable. This can leave the child feeling insecure and anxious about trusting others.

Adults with disorganized attachment might have trouble getting close to others or become overly attached.

Abandonment is often the underlying cause of attachment issues. This can be caused by a specific event from childhood, like a parent’s divorce or a caregiver’s death. 

For example, people with abandonment issues might be terrified of their partner leaving them, even if there’s no reason to believe that will happen.

The difference? Abandonment is an event that happens. Attachment is how abandonment impacts someone’s ability to connect with others. Both can make relationships tricky.

Types of abandonment issues

There are different types of abandonment experiences. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Physical absence: This can happen when a caregiver isn’t around to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, or healthcare.
  • Emotional distance: Sometimes, parents are there physically but emotionally unavailable (such as in cold mother syndrome), leaving us feeling unseen or unheard.
  • Rejection: Feeling like a caregiver favors someone else or simply doesn’t show appreciation can be hurtful.
  • Sudden loss: Losing someone you love unexpectedly, through death or abandonment, can be deeply traumatic.
  • Unpredictable situations: Even if needs are met, having a caregiver come and go due to struggles like addiction can create a sense of abandonment issue.

Remember, even without neglect, a lack of emotional connection can be damaging. If you suspect you might be dealing with abandonment issues, a therapist can help you understand your experiences and develop healthy ways to cope.

Now, let’s talk about the most common signals of abandonment issues and see if you can relate.

Symptoms of abandonment trauma

It is worth noticing that many abandonment trauma signs may overlap with signs of repressed childhood trauma. It’s the moment when you ask yourself, “Why can’t I remember my childhood?

Symptoms of abandonment trauma may include:

  • Difficulty managing emotions. People with abandonment childhood trauma may experience hardship in regulating their emotions, leading to outbursts of anger, sadness, or being overly attached. They might struggle to express their needs healthily.
  • Intense anxiety and worry. A constant fear of abandonment can manifest as generalized anxiety or social anxiety. You might worry excessively about loved ones leaving or situations that could lead to separation.
  • Needing excessive validation or fearing being alone. There might be a strong need for constant reassurance of love and affection. The thought of being alone can be unbearable, leading to social anxiety or codependency in relationships.
  • Struggling with self-esteem. This is also a vivid symptom of enmeshment trauma. Abandonment trauma can damage a person’s sense of self-worth, leading to feelings of inadequacy and believing you are “not good enough” for love or connection. What’s more, it can even lead to questions like, “Why do I hate myself?”
  • Feeling insecure and suspicious of others. Trusting others can be difficult due to past experiences. You might become suspicious of others’ motives or constantly seek signs of potential abandonment.
  • Haunting memories or flashbacks. Vivid memories or flashbacks of the abandonment event can be intrusive and emotionally overwhelming.
signs of abandonment trauma

Examples of childhood abandonment trauma in adults

Note that each person experiences everything differently. What one person has, another might not. 

The most common examples of abandonment trauma may include: 

  • Destructive behavior: Despite wanting a deeper connection, you might withdraw emotionally when your partner gets close, pushing them away unconsciously. It’s almost like getting close feels scary, so you push them out before they can leave you.
  • People-pleasing is another example of abandonment trauma. You constantly want to make others happy, even if it means sacrificing your needs. For example, you might agree to watch a documentary about conspiracy theories in an 80s movie even though you’d rather read a geology book, all because you’re afraid your partner might be annoyed. You can even apologize excessively for almost everything, fearing your partner will be upset.
  • No fight in the house: Instead of mentioning something that frustrates you about your partner, you stay silent. You might bottle things up, like your partner’s constant lateness or late-night outings with friends, because you’re afraid they’ll get angry and leave. This silence can also lead to letting them borrow money repeatedly without clear repayment plans.
  • Looking for validation: Ever find yourself texting your partner constantly just to make sure everything’s okay? Yeah, many of us can relate. The fear of abandonment controls us; it’s like we always need to hear they haven’t changed their mind about us.
  • Dependence: We all get jealous sometimes, but you may feel insecure if your partner spends time with friends or family. It’s like a regular worry they’ll find someone “better” or “smarter” and leave you behind.
  • Overreacting: Sometimes, even small things, like your partner being unavailable for a bit, can trigger a wave of intense sadness, anger, or anxiety. It’s like your brain is on high alert for any signs of abandonment issues.
  • Self-doubt: Maybe you struggle with low self-esteem and question whether you’re worthy of love. You might ask yourself, “Why do I feel so guilty?” believing you don’t deserve a happy relationship.
  • Spacing Out: During arguments or stressful moments, you might feel foggy, numb, or disconnected from the conversation. You find it challenging to stay present at the moment. It’s a coping mechanism that can be especially common for people who’ve experienced long-term childhood abuse or neglect.

Where do abandonment issues come from?

The next important thing is to know the root of possible trauma. Abandonment trauma often comes from a fear of loneliness, usually triggered by early experiences of loss or neglect. These experiences can be dramatic events or more subtle patterns of emotional unavailability from caregivers.

So, let’s answer your question, “Why do I have abandonment issues?” and take a look at the common causes of abandonment issues.

Childhood Trauma

Our experiences in childhood can have a big significance on how we feel about relationships later in life. Sometimes, things that happened when we were young can make us worried about being left alone or abandoned. Here are a few examples of what might trigger those feelings:

  • Abuse: You may ask, “Why do I have abandonment issues if I was never abandoned?” A kid who experiences physical or emotional abuse from a caregiver can develop a deep fear of being rejected or abandoned. The caregiver, who should be a source of comfort, becomes a source of anxiety and uncertainty. This makes it hard for the child to trust and build healthy relationships later in life.
  • Neglect: When a child’s basic needs for food, shelter, or emotional connection are consistently ignored, it can lead to feelings of isolation and abandonment too. The child may feel unimportant and unlovable, creating a deep-seated fear of abandonment.

I’d like to add here the abandonment trauma quote from actor Sebastian Stan which reveals how trauma can affect our relationships: “If you’re getting abandoned, if you’re getting abused as a child, if you’re getting uncertainty when you’re a child, unfortunately, you tend to look for that in your life later on, and you think that’s love.

To see if you might have experienced childhood trauma, take our free childhood trauma test and get immediate results.

Losing someone

The death or serious illness of someone you love can be a traumatic experience. It can trigger a fear of abandonment and a sense of powerlessness. You may worry that the remaining loved ones will also leave you, leading to anxiety and insecurity in future relationships.

Splitting up

Going through a breakup, divorce, or separation can also be a painful experience. It’s natural to feel a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, and maybe even anxiety. Sometimes, these experiences can make navigating new relationships feel a bit scary. This is because breakups can trigger fears of rejection or abandonment, even if the past relationship wasn’t ideal.

Emotional void

From childhood onward, we all crave love, safety, and the feeling that our emotions matter. 

But when those things are missing, it can leave a bit of a hole inside, you know? That void can make it hard to connect with others and might even have some scars, like being abandoned and having that “Why do I feel lost” feeling.

How childhood abandonment trauma impacts adults

There’s a possibility that for some people, experiences of abandonment in childhood could lead to difficulties in adulthood. 

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC, shared her thoughts about the impact of abandonment trauma: The lasting effects of abandonment come with many intra and interpersonal challenges. Since the root of all attachment issues is the fear of rejection and abandonment, it is crucial to understand the way such experiences impact your ability to connect with others. Unresolved abandonment often results in more unstable moods, self-esteem, and relationships. Seeking out therapy and additional support to address attachment issues will lead to more effective communication skills, higher self-confidence, and increase your ability to seek out healthy relationships.

It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that these experiences might be linked to mental health concerns, such as:

Independence vs. Dependence. Trauma, particularly abandonment trauma, can trigger opposite coping mechanisms. Some people might feel a strong urge to be completely independent, wanting to take care of everything themselves (which might be a sign of parentification trauma).

Others might lean heavily on others, fearing being left alone again. It might even end in a trauma-bonding experience.

For example, after a stressful job change, you might take on extra chores at home to feel productive or call your family more often for reassurance.

Being paranoid can lead to increased caution and a bit of jumpiness. While this extra awareness isn’t always comfortable, it can help us feel safer after feeling scared. For instance, after losing your keys once, you might double-check your pockets more often or put them in a specific place to avoid that worry.

Emotional distress. Abandonment trauma can make it harder to manage our feelings. We might feel down, hopeless, or even have thoughts of hurting ourselves.

feeling abandonment

Abandonment trauma and related conditions

When someone experiences abandonment, it can be difficult to manage emotions and feel safe. This can lead to struggles with mental health, such as anxiety or depression. Some people might even engage in self-harm or eating disorders. These behaviors may be a way of trying to cope with the overwhelming feelings after abandonment.

Abandonment trauma can often co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders: People with abandonment issues may be more likely to develop anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. This is because they may constantly worry about being abandoned or rejected.
  • Depression: Trauma can also lead to depression. People with abandonment issues may feel hopeless, worthless, and unlovable.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): In some cases, another related condition can be PTSD. This is a mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event.
  • Attachment disorders: These are conditions that affect the way people form relationships with others. People with attachment disorders may have difficulty trusting others, forming close relationships, or maintaining healthy boundaries.
  • Substance abuse: People with abandonment trauma may be more likely to abuse substances, such as alcohol or drugs, as a way to cope with their pain and emotional distress.
  • Eating disorders: It can also be a risk factor for eating disorders. People with eating disorders may use food or control over food as a way to cope with their feelings of abandonment.

How to deal with abandonment issues

There is only one question left. How to overcome abandonment issues from childhood? Some approaches can help you manage abandonment trauma, such as how to heal childhood trauma without therapy or with the help of a professional. 

But what you can do first by yourself is to identify what triggers your anxiety. Is it a partner working late or a friend becoming distant? Recognizing these situations helps you manage your emotions effectively.

Challenge negative thoughts when abandonment fears arise. Replace them with realistic ideas. Instead of “They’re leaving me,” think, “They might be busy. We can talk later.”

Practice self-care. Eat well, sleep enough, and exercise. Taking care of yourself builds resilience to anxiety.

Set healthy boundaries. Know your limits and communicate them clearly.

If you’re struggling with abandonment issues, consider seeking professional help. A therapist can explore the root of your fears and teach healthy coping mechanisms. Different approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), can be helpful. You might also benefit from group therapy to connect with others facing similar challenges. 

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC photo

Reviewed by Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC

Hannah is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She sees kids, teens, and adults...