Experiencing emotional abandonment in childhood can make us feel anxious, distrustful, ashamed, and inadequate and these feelings often follow us into adulthood, making it difficult to form healthy, trusting relationships.
Emotional abandonment means that someone important, someone you are counting on, isnt 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, emotional abandonment, or having emotionally unavailable parents, has a profound effect on them.
The difference between physical abandonment and emotional abandonment
Physical abandonment is when a parent or caregiver isnt physically present or doesnt meet their childs 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. 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 doesnt attend to their childs emotional needs. This includes not noticing their childs feelings and validating them, not showing love, encouragement, or support.
Like Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), emotional abandonment is about what didnt happen its the loss of emotional connection and the loss of having your emotional needs met. Its 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 and weren’t emotionally available.
Emotional abandonment is more common than physical abandonment. Parents emotionally abandon their children for a variety of reasons. Often theres a lot of stress and chaos in the family, such as violence, verbal abuse, or a parent struggling with addiction or mental illness. Sometimes, parents are distracted by other things caring for a sick family member, grief, financial problems, or other major stressors that deplete their emotional reserves. As a result, the childs needs get ignored.
If you were emotionally abandoned, its 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 peoples 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 isnt paying attention or because its what was expected of them when they were children.
Abandonment is loss. When its chronic or happens repeatedly it’s traumatic.
Abandonment is an extremely painful experience for children. We feel rejected and cant understand why our parents arent available and attentive. And in order to make sense of their behavior, we assume weve done something wrong to repel our parents. We come to believe were unworthy of their love and attention and these feelings become internalized as shame and 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 dont reliably meet your needs whether its your need for food and shelter or your need for emotional support and validation you learn that others arent trustworthy, that you cant count on others to be there for you.
Chronic childhood abandonment can create a generalized feeling of insecurity — a belief that the world isnt safe and people arent 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 whats 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
Its a parents job to take care of their children. But children cant possibly understand why their parents dont act in loving ways towards them. Their limited reasoning abilities lead them to erroneously conclude that they are the reason for their parents rejection they arent worthy of their parents love, they arent good enough. Otherwise, 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 Im wrong or bad and Im unworthy of love, protection, and attention. 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 theyre worthy. You learned that in order to be accepted and loved, you cant make any mistakes, act up, need anything, or express any negative or vulnerable emotions.
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.
Rewire your thinking
In order to heal from feelings of shame and unworthiness, we need to correct the false beliefs that we continue to hold 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 werent able to understand and attend to my emotional needs. That was a failing on their part, not mine.
- My emotional needs are valid. Its 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, Ive looked for evidence to reinforce this belief. But now I can look for and find evidence that I have good qualities.
We also know that shame lives in our secrets. We dont usually talk about the things were ashamed of because were 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 fade. A therapist, 12-step group, or a religious or spiritual leader, may provide a safe sounding board. A therapist can also help you challenge the underlying false beliefs that have been supporting your shame.
Validate your needs
Emotional abandonment tells you that your needs dont matter. This isnt true and its essential that we correct this notion by telling ourselves repeatedly that our needs are legitimate just like everyone elses.
Because it doesnt 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 predetermined times throughout the day (such as at mealtimes). Once were 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.
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 youre 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?
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. Originally published on the author’s website. All rights reserved. Photo by Joseph Gonzalez via Unsplash.com.