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.
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’s chronic or 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 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.
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?
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 by Annie Spratt via Unsplash.
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