- Abandonment affects people long into adulthood, especially if it happened during crucial development years.
- Abandonment results in trauma that can manifest as dysfunctional traits inside and outside of relationships.
- Early sexual behavior and using food or other substances for coping are common ways to manage emotional pain.
Over the course of our time, I learned that she had been abandoned by her father in early adolescence. "He just moved away and found a new family," she said one day, her anger turning into a new-to-her feeling of sadness. Not knowing how to cope with the difficult feelings that encompassed her since he left, Joanne struggled with interpersonal relationships, often getting into arguments and, most recently, physical fights with peers.
Over time, she was able to learn how to better manage some of the negative feelings she experienced, eventually replacing her previous behaviors with safer coping skills. But the anger, sadness, and feelings of abandonment plagued her well into adulthood.
"If he didn't care about me enough to stay and take care of me, why should I care about myself?" she said one day. The room stayed still, the air between us felt heavy. How could I convince this young girl that she was worthy of love and respect when the person who was supposed to love and care for her had left her?
Joanne's story, while heartbreaking, is a common one among many of my clients. As a therapist who works with survivors of relational trauma, I have many clients who have experienced parental abandonment or the departure of a caregiver. This can happen for a multitude of reasons: imprisonment, death, physical separation. Sometimes the parent leaves due not to choice or fault of their own. Nevertheless, all abandonment can be devastating, especially if the child does not have the tools they need to cope and move forward.
But the most devastating losses are those in which caregivers left voluntarily. Joanne's father left at a time when she was old enough to have a bond with him yet young enough to internalize his leaving into self-blame and stunted emotional growth.
Those who have had such an experience often possess similar personality characteristics, a result of having endured the same emotional trauma.
Here are eight of the most common shared characteristics:
1. Decreased self-esteem or sense of self. When they do not have the support and encouragement of a healthy caregiver(s) during their developmental years, adolescents struggle to develop healthy self-esteem and a strong sense of self. Nothing tells a young child that they are unlovable more than a parent leaving voluntarily.
2. Hypervigilance. When a child has to be their own emotional support system, such as when they are abandoned by a caregiver during their young years, they often develop irrational fears and anxieties. Often they will report a strong sense of fear of something bad happening, always being nervous or on edge. Being abandoned by a caregiver, destabilizes a person's very sense of safety.
3. Earlier, or increased, sexual behavior. Often the young person is desperate for love and comfort from others, yet they do not know how to get this need met. Precocious sexual behavior is also seen when adolescents try to search for that emotional and physical connection that they lack with their caregiver(s). "Early father-absent girls had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by late father-absent girls, followed by father-present girls." (Ellis et al. 2023.)
4. Fears of abandonment. The fears can show up as desperation in relationships, such as being clingy or needy. Young people exhibit fears of abandonment in taking it very personally when friends have other interests, a crush doesn't return affection, or they are not invited to social gatherings. In later years, abandonment fears can show up as staying in unhealthy relationships past their expiration date due to difficulty leaving. Or they can show up as fears of relationships altogether.
5. Trouble being assertive (or, conversely, being too aggressive, as a defense mechanism). When we internalize the message that we are not worthy of love and support, as many who are abandoned by a caregiver do, we struggle to be assertive in moments when it is needed. Some people overcompensate for this negative feeling by being aggressive, as a way to prevent others from hurting them again. Others struggle to stand up for themselves, often due to fears of upsetting someone.
6. Disordered or addictive behaviors. When children don't learn self-soothing behaviors to deal with the negative and uncomfortable feelings that come from abandonment (or other distressing experiences), they may turn to food or other substances as a source of comfort when such feelings arise. Daughters of absent fathers are more likely to have disordered eating, be obese, or engage in addictive substances. (Teachman, 2004).
7. Fears of "losing everything." This is a common feeling among those who were abandoned during a crucial time in their life that many struggle to put into words. More than the state of hypervigilance, it is a constant sense of being about to "lose everything," that they are only a bad day away from losing their home, their possessions, or even their families or relationships. In my practice, and in my personal experience, I notice it more among those who were abandoned during crucial development years such as adolescence or emerging adulthood.
8. Ongoing attempts to solve or work through their trauma. Throughout adolescent relationships and into adulthood, many of those who were abandoned report fears of having their own children, or they may have children very early to somehow "prove" to themselves that they are capable of having a normal, loving family or to have the special relationship they missed out on with their own caregiver. Similarly, many report wanting to avoid having children, often due to not wanting to repeat the behaviors they experienced.
It took Joanne years of therapy to work through and recover from her experience. She still has moments of self-doubt or times when her traumas manifest in ways that are not automatically apparent, such as struggling with criticism, fears of abandonment, and conflicts with others. But overall, with support and understanding, she was able to navigate the stages of healing from her childhood trauma experiences.
Ellis BJ, Bates JE, Dodge KA, Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ, Pettit GS, Woodward L. 2023. Does father absence place daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy? Child Dev. 74(3):801-21. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00569. PMID: 12795391; PMCID: PMC2764264.
Schäfer, I., Pawils, S., Driessen, M., Härter, M., Hillemacher, T., Klein, M., Muehlhan, M., Ravens-Sieberer, U., Schäfer, M., Scherbaum, N., Schneider, B., Thomasius, R., Wiedemann, K., Wegscheider, K., & Barnow, S. (2017). Understanding the role of childhood abuse and neglect as a cause and consequence of substance abuse: the German CANSAS network. European journal of psychotraumatology, 8(1), 1304114. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2017.1304114
Teachman, J. D. (2004). The Childhood Living Arrangements of Children and the Characteristics of Their Marriages. Journal of Family Issues, 25(1), 86–111. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X03255346