By Robert Waldvogel
Abandonment, both a primal and universal fear, is an involuntary response that occurs when a child’s plug is pulled from his parents or primary caregivers early in life, creating a deep, penetrating emotional wound. Cumulative and progressive, it establishes a trigger, which ignites all of his previous losses, uncertainties, and disappointments, and is connected to the very trauma of his birth. It leads to adult child fear of abandonment.
The “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 162) defines abandonment as “a sense of loss, being left, pushed out, forgotten, minimized, betrayed, (and) feeling vulnerable. Lost at sea.”
Abandonment affects the soul, which is organized as the self in physical form. Because it shares the same origin and need for connection, unity, and love as all others, that connection creates a feeling of wholeness beyond its autonomy and any disconnection manifests itself as a loss. When experienced early in life, it becomes traumatizing.
“Connection is a basic human need,” according to Amanda Rowett’s “7 Most Common Abandonment Issues Symptoms” article. “Infants are hardwired to attach to their primary caregivers. The child’s survival entirely depends on (them) and, if his needs are not met, it creates a high level of anxiety. When children experience ongoing losses without the psychological and physical safety they need, they internalize fear. Abandonment is a child’s most predominant fear. If children are unable to form secure attachments, and if insecurities are left unaddressed, abandonment wounds can severely impact adult functioning and interpersonal relationships.”
This issue, which is integral to and characteristic of the adult child syndrome, originates because dysfunctional, unstable, unavailable, alcoholic, and abusive parents physically and emotionally abandon a child during his very earliest days of life, failing to fully or sometimes even adequately provide his protecting, nurturing, nutritional, emotional, financial, role-modeling, and mirroring needs. Devoid of tools, he is forced to dig deep within himself for resources and capabilities he does not have, sparking that abandonment fear.
Abandonment can be real or perceived and both physical and emotional, but is created by absent, distant, dysfunctional, addicted, deficient, and unavailable, in whole or in part, parents or primary caregivers.
“(A child’s) parents were intended to be there for him in the ways that he could not yet be there for himself,” I wrote in an earlier article, “Can a Parent Abandon a Child Without Ever Leaving his Side” (EzineArticles, June 28, 2014), “but from this absence comes an emotional void with which he must negotiate life.”
CHILDHOOD PERSPECTIVE OF ABANDONMENT
Although children are not consciously aware of the effects abandonment has on them, it changes the course of their development, impresses their brains with imprints, is internalized to the degree of shame for what they believe they are, leaves cavernous holes in their souls, hinders their ability to form secure adult attachments, breeds distrust, and can remain an unresolved trauma, all provided it is not addressed. As a core issue, it manifests itself as a feeling of inequality, unworthiness, an inability to rely on others, loneliness, and pervasive unsafety.
SYMPTOMS OF ABANDONMENT
Because of abandonment’s core complexity, it manifests itself in a series of symptoms.
The first of these is chronic insecurity. Abandonment, in a child’s undeveloped mind and fragile emotional state, has nothing to do with his parents, whom he considers perfect, flawless, and God-equivalent, he reasons. Instead, he believes it is the result of his own lack of value. He thinks that he is a person not worth devoting time and attention to, and consequently accepts the responsibility and burden for the deficiency and unreliability of his caregivers.
“What do you say to a toddler when he is crying out for his dad and you know that he is selfishly missing in action… ,” poses T. Nicole Taylor in “I Want My Daddy: The Psychology of Abandonment” (Amazon, 2014, p. 14). “It would be so much easier just to say he died, because, in reality, his absence is like death. Instead of managing a temporary emotional loss, the child is tormented with an ongoing pain and feels lost when he is abandoned.”
Another symptom is a person’s tendency to re-enact a trauma. As noted, late addiction recovery counselor and author John Bradshaw once wrote, “When you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” while Freud himself considered a trauma a “repetition compulsion.”
Since a child fails to understand the reasons behind his abandonment and can only accept his flawed, unlovable, unworthiness for it, he re-experiences his abandonment traumas, fully expecting them from adults, even in his mature years.
Rejected, unwanted, and insufficiently loved, such a person feels pervasively unworthy, which is another symptom. The child once again accepts responsibility for the abandonment.
“At a certain point we all have asked the question: why am I here? Why me,” continues Taylor (ibid, p. 43). “This question may be most prevalent when you’re wondering why the other half that made you doesn’t want anything to do with you and you think: is it something I did? Something I said? Is it the way I look? Is his absence because he wishes I never existed?”
Foster care, I emphasized in my “Can a Parent Abandon a Child without Ever Leaving his Side” article (op. cit.) hardly improves the situation. “Like grains of sand blown by the wind, such children shift through the foster care system, never feeling connected to or loved by an adult who cares,” I wrote. “Nothing blares the message of ‘I’m worthless’ more than these circumstances.”
Increased emotional sensitivity is yet another symptom of abandonment. Because it leaves an imprint on the brain, its wounds are easily restimulated, if not altogether re-triggered, leaving the person hypersensitive for the actions, words, and circumstances that do. They can include criticism, marginalization, exclusion, dismissal, and rejection, sparking a regression to the crucial development period when they were sustained. Once again powerless and tool-devoid, the person re-experiences the same traumatic sensation as an adult that he once did as a child.
Emotionally hijacked, he is again victim to the primitive, brain stem-located amygdala, which, seamlessly functioning with the hippocampus, secretes a flood of fight-or-flight preparing stress hormones into his system. Severed from his path to reasoning and rationality, located in the brain’s upper, cerebral cortex, he is returned to the time of his original trauma, as if no time has elapsed.
Unable to rely on adults for protection, nurturing, and basic needs, needless to say, breeds distrust, which is yet another abandonment symptom. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If a child has been shown that he cannot depend on his caregivers to meet his physical, emotional, mental, monetary, and spiritual needs, he enters the world-at-large with the same expectations, distrusting that others will.
Left to dig deep within himself to meet his own needs, he may become autonomously self-sufficient, disconnecting from others and living one of the Adult Children of Alcoholics survival traits-namely. “We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than with ourselves.”
While emotional mood swings, still another symptom of abandonment, may not exclusively indicate such a core issue, it is a strong indicator of its existence. Like a pendulum, the person may swing between the extremes of hyper vigilance for the next sudden departure of someone and dissociation to counteract the emotionally volatile and dis-regulated state this anticipation creates.
Tripping the circuit on his original wound, the actions and statements of others cause him to obsess, over analyze, and interpret their significance. A turn down of an invitation to have dinner, for instance, may imply that the other person is busy to someone without such wounds, but to an adult child it may be interpreted as an expression of his valuelessness, as in “I’m not important enough for him to give me his time.”
Other symptoms, which are also not exclusive to abandonment, include insecurity, depression, self-underestimation, avoidance of intimacy, separation anxiety, clinginess, tolerance of mistreatment, and jealousy.
There are two broad causes of abandonment.
Lack of physical presence, the first, entails the partial or total absence of caregiver presence because of one or many of the following reasons: excessive career devotion, frequent business trips, divorce, inadequate or nonexistent visitation, general absence, being left alone with older siblings or a babysitter, placement in daycare or foster care, or death.
The second cause, a failure to provide a child’s nurturing, emotional, spiritual, and/or protective needs, results from a parent’s own unresolved childhood issues, neglect, emotional unavailability, a physically ill state, shaming, rejection, belittlement, criticism, addiction, and mental illness.
“Abandonment can take many forms,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (op. cit., p. 11). “One form is as simple as the parent leaving the child alone without returning. Or it can involve parental perfectionism in which a child’s behavior never measures up. Parents abandon their children when they fail to praise or recognize a child’s true effort to please (them). Instead, most parents are quick to criticize and correct a child’s behavior, but rarely find time to praise the child or to build confidence for good choices.”
Physical abandonment, one of these many types, leaves, like all others, a scar on the child’s psyche.
“When a parent leaves a child without any explanation regarding why, the feeling of rejection can begin to tear away at (his) own self-worth,” according to Taylor (op. cit., p. 14). “In situations when the absent parent is consistently inconsistent, this can cause confusion, mistrust, and in small children separation anxiety.”
Many other, perhaps more subtle, abandonment types thwart healthy development and impact the establishment of confidence and self-esteem, including the suppression of happiness and expression; withholding appropriate praise, validation, and love; inadequate acknowledgment and mirroring of a child’s feelings; the implication that he should not have needs and wants; shifting the burden and blame to him; and shaming him. All of them echo the unwritten, unspoken adult child rules of “don’t’ talk, don’t trust, (and) don’t feel.”
Similar to a bank, a child’s emotions can be enhanced by means of positive deposits or diminished by means of negative withdrawals. Withholds, which are neither, leave him frozen and still awaiting the expected, but never received parental praise and validation.
“To shame a child is to abandon the child,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (op. cit., p. 168). “A parent can shame and abandon a child without ever leaving the room, because a shamed child feels unlovable and alone on a deep level.”
This type is only a step removed from the actual physical kind, but is just as detrimental.
“Being able to provide for your child is important, but spending quality time and being a visible role model… is worth more than any amount of money one could receive,” according to Taylor (op. cit., pp 22-23). “Unfortunately, some men would rather walk away than provide the enriching value of their time and attention to their child.”
Other abandonment types involve relegating a child to an adult role by holding him responsible for what is inappropriate for his age, involving him in adult issues, and using him for a parent’s own needs and worth, such as viewing him as a surrogate spouse.
Abandonment breeds co dependence, a disease of lost self hood that prompts the person to plug into others to feel whole.
“The soul rupture is the abandonment by our parents or caregivers,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 60). “The abandonment sets us up for a life of looking outward for love and safety that never comes. The co dependence of the adult child from the alcoholic or nonalcoholic house is the source and leads to the same loss of self.”
Continually chewing on the critical inner voice, such a person ends up experiencing the ultimate type of abandonment-of himself-perpetuating his original abandonment wound.
ABANDONMENT ISSUES IN RELATIONSHIPS
Abandonment, needless to say, both manifests itself in and sabotages relationships, but it can also arise from later-life situations, such as spousal separation, divorce, and death. Because of this and early childhood experiences, the person’s unresolved wounds surface in numerous, not-necessarily understandable ways, as his core issue primes him for the abrupt departure of his or her partner.
Signs and symptoms include the fear of intimacy, since the more seamless the connection, the greater will be the fear of the anticipated rejection; manipulating a partner to stay, but remaining self-protective; attempting to avoid abandonment through control and excessive clinging; loneliness, despite the presence of another; the inability to establish healthy boundaries, resulting in co-dependence; the delusion that the person does not really need anyone, which is “counter-dependency;;” and low-grade anxiety, fatigue, and depression, which are unresolved childhood fears that surface in adult relationships. Along with the latter are the unchallenged core beliefs that the person will inevitably be abandoned because of his unworthiness and unloveaiblity. He does not believe that he deserves the relationship.
Despite the lack of logic, such a person may actually attract a damaged, emotionally unavailable, and addicted partner who sustains the same wounds and is therefore himself unable to enter into genuine, intimate relationships.
Anything but healthy, they can entail degrees of mistrust, insecurity, control, dominance, the giving of all by one that is not reciprocated by the other, and the inability to emotionally attach, as each operates from his original abandonment rupture. The efforts and energy expended are expressed by another of the Adult Children of Alcoholics survival traits, which states, “We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.”
Susan Anderson, who taught the “Abandonment Trauma and Patterns of Self-Sabotage” Course at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, on November 2, 2018, captured this dynamic with the term “abandoholism,” a post-traumatic repetition compulsion that causes a person to attract an unavailable other.
So severe can the fear of another leaving become, that the person abandons the relationship himself in a self-protective effort to avoid his deep childhood hurts, very much in the “I’ll get you before you get me” vein.
Abandonment, above all, is trauma. It is not a single event, but a sustained, episodic, and cumulative one characterized by repetitive connection-disconnection conditioning. As a wound to the self, it stores its sensations in the amygdala. The developing self incorporates the shame of powerlessness. Shame itself triggers unresolved anger, panic, and fear, creating a self-sustaining, momentum-gathering cycle, which builds upon the previous one, increasing in intensity.
Using a metaphor, Anderson (ibid) describes the shame component of abandonment trauma.
“The vein of shame lies deep within the self. Our raw pulsating abandonment nerve is deeply veined with this shame. Easily nicked, (it is) pierced by tiny ducts of hurt, sending toxins into the system, oozing subliminal valleys of ‘not-worthiness.’ This inflamed nerve can throb, become systemic, and can lead to inhibition, a lack of confidence, performance anxiety, underachievement, and intimacy issues. (It) leads to post-traumatic behaviors and automatic defenses. Shame doesn’t burst: it seeps and resupplies.”
Similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it establishes an automatic, reflexive response. If a person’s parent traumatized him, he expects the same treatment from others. Primed for fight-or-flight reaction, he becomes emotionally dysregulated.
“The abandonment nerve, tinged with shame, can twinge when we feel slightly dissed, criticized, excluded, ignored, misunderstood, overlooked, condescend to, unappreciated, taken for granted, not chosen, or not reciprocated with,” Anderson explains (ibid). “Abandonment trauma leads to heightened emotional responses to triggers through emotional conditioning, repetitive self-sabotaging behavioral patterns, and automatic defenses that become maladaptive habits.”
HEALING FROM ABANDONMENT
Abandonment, especially to an adult child, is the equivalent of a parent who promises to catch him when he jumps off of a high step, but walks way before he hits the ground, leaving a hole in the floor and the one in his soul.
Although patterns result from unresolved incidents such as these, they fail to impede post-traumatic self-sabotage impulses, because resistance originates from the psychological features that are embedded in the brain structure.
A person cannot think his way out of his abandonment wounds, but conventional therapy provides and promotes his emotional awareness of them, enabling him to re-feel the hurt and emptiness that ooze from them and walk and work through them until they are sutured.
“Abandonment Trauma and Patterns of Self-Sabotage” Course taught by Susan Anderson at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, November 2, 2018.
“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.
Rowett, Amanda. “7 Most Common Abandonment Issues Symptoms.” Internet.
Taylor, T. Nicole. “I Want my Daddy: The Psychology of Abandonment.” Middletown, Delaware: Amazon, 2014.
Waldvogel, Robert G. ” Can a Parent Abandon a Child Without Ever Leaving his Side?” EzineArticles. June 28, 2014.