Physical or emotional abandonment may lead to signs of trauma, like insecure attachment and self-sabotaging behavior. These effects can be managed and healing is possible.

Abandonment trauma refers to the intense emotional response and related behaviors that being neglected, emotionally or physically, can have on you, regardless of age.

Significant abandonment incidents can cause you a great deal of emotional pain. They can also impact the way you relate to others and how you perceive yourself.

Trauma can be difficult to explore without the support of a mental health professional. They can offer a safe space to talk about your experiences and emotions, and they work with you in deciding the best therapeutic strategies for abandonment trauma.

Trauma is an emotional and psychological response to a negative event that’s distressing, disturbing, or painful,” says Luis Ramirez II, marriage and family therapist and clinical director of the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley in Lancaster, California.

Abandonment trauma results from experiencing or perceiving any type of abandonment that may have been extremely painful for you. It may be related to instances when you felt neglected, threatened, or left behind.

What a traumatic event is to you may not be the same to someone else. How these events affect you depends on many factors. When it comes to trauma, the event itself isn’t as relevant as how you experienced and reacted to it.

Experiences that can lead to abandonment trauma include physical absence and not feeling physically nurtured or safe. For example:

  • being left in a physically dangerous position by a friend or caretaker
  • having your physical needs for food and water unmet
  • processing the death of a loved one as abandonment

Particularly during childhood, these abandonment events may not have been intentional. However, given their limited emotional and cognitive resources, a baby or child may interpret some situations as being abandoned and experience them as traumatic events.

If unaddressed, these abandonment experiences can lead to trauma.

Physical abandonment isn’t the only event that may be traumatic. Emotional abandonment may also have a great impact on both children and adults. This can include:

Not every instance of abandonment will lead you to experience traumatic stress. The long-term effects of abandonment on your mental health may depend, in part, on your access to a support network and your internal coping mechanisms.

How perceived or physical abandonment impacts you depends on many factors, including your age.

Abandonment trauma in children

Trauma can impact the way that your brain sorts things out and makes decisions. If you experience a traumatic event during childhood, it can also affect the biology of your developing brain.

A 2021 systematic review found that there’s a link between insecure attachment in early childhood and developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later in life. The nature of this link isn’t yet understood, though.

Another 2021 systematic review found that children and adolescents who face early-life adversity, including deprivation or threatening situations, had reduced executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to your working memory and the ability to control impulses.

The bond between you and your primary caregivers partially informs how you learn to relate to others in adulthood, according to a psychological model called attachment theory.

Research that supports the theory shows that children who can’t rely on caregivers to meet their emotional and physical needs early in life can develop certain mental health conditions, such as reactive attachment disorder.

In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), establishes maltreatment and neglect during early years as the cause of reactive attachment disorder.

Abandonment trauma in adults

Fear of being abandoned is one of the potential long-term effects of abandonment trauma.

“If untreated, the effects of abandonment trauma will continually resurface,” explains Ramirez. “It will come out like sweat out of our pores as subconscious responses manifest through negative behaviors, depression, sadness, anger, anxiety, or paranoia.”

Based on his experience as a therapist, Ramirez also says that people with abandonment trauma are more likely to engage in self-sabotaging behavior.

In the case of childhood trauma, it can also impact adult relationships, from intimate partnerships to family ties, because they may have a hard time being vulnerable, accepting love, and trusting people.

An adult who experienced abandonment as a child may also be more likely to develop symptoms of other mental health conditions.

Although research on abandonment trauma is limited, research on trauma effects, in general, can indicate potential mental health effects of being or feeling abandoned.

A 2015 study of 349 people with chronic depression showed that 75.6% of participants reported a history of childhood trauma. Multiple traumatic experiences were linked to more severe depression symptoms.

A 2019 study of 187 participants explored the established link between trauma and psychosis. In this case, researchers worked with people who’d had their first episode of psychosis. They found that those who’d experienced trauma had a higher chance of displaying severe aggressive behaviors, particularly toward other people.

Findings also indicated that trauma was correlated to depression severity, thoughts of suicide, and non-suicidal self-injury behavior.

The signs of abandonment trauma are similar to the general signs of other types of trauma.

These symptoms may differ according to what stage of development the person is going through when exposed to the traumatic incident, in this case, the abandonment. If you experience prolonged traumatic stress, your symptoms may increase in intensity.

The effects and symptoms of trauma in elementary-age or younger children may include:

  • nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • crying or screaming for no apparent reason
  • separation anxiety
  • performance difficulty in academic settings
  • changes in appetite or relationship with food

If untreated, childhood trauma may affect adulthood. Among others, some possible signs and symptoms include:

Healing from trauma is possible, regardless of the traumatic incident you experienced and even if you were exposed to prolonged traumatic stress.

But recovering from trauma is a complex process, and it’s highly advisable that you seek the support of a mental health professional.

“Individuals should seek help when their abandonment trauma impairs their ability to manage functions of daily living, like working, going to school, caring for themselves, and maintaining healthy relationships,” Ramirez says.

Additionally, consider these tips to take care of yourself:

Try to save time for joy

According to Ramirez, finding productive outlets can be key to processing your trauma.

“Do things that bring you joy. That can include hobbies, journaling, creating art, playing music, practicing gratitude, and getting outside each day,” he says.

Consider mindfulness and meditation

Ramirez also cites meditation as a possible outlet for staying grounded and processing trauma. Meditation aims to focus your mind on a thought, idea, or nothing at all to ground your body and promote calm.

Mindfulness has also been established as an effective coping mechanism for children who have experienced adverse life experiences.

Try to reach out

Ramirez cites investing in your community as a way to process and cope with abandonment trauma. Spending time with friends, family, or your “chosen family” of loved ones can help remind you that you’re safe and loved.

Another option is volunteering with an initiative you’re passionate about and joining a support group in your area.

Physical and emotional abandonment can lead to trauma. If a traumatic incident happened during childhood, it may impact your development and the way your brain is wired. It may also affect the way you see yourself and your adult relationships.

Recovering from any type of trauma, including abandonment, is possible. Reaching out to a mental health professional is advisable and building a support network can help, too.