- Caregiver abandonment affects us long into adulthood, often manifesting as dysfunctional traits in and outside of relationships.
- Caregiver neglect or abandonment can be a significant source of trauma but is often overlooked in older teens.
- Those who experience parental abandonment may struggle with self-image and self-esteem as adults.
Cassie was 14 when her father left her mother, moving into an apartment across town. She dealt with the trauma of their separation by skipping school, experimenting with drugs, and staying out late with boys, and she was even caught shoplifting.
But she was 18 when he left her. Reporting to mutual family members that he "couldn't handle" Cassie's behavior anymore, he stopped answering the phone and moved in with a new woman. As he began a completely new family, it was clear that Cassie was no longer welcome.
He still sent Christmas and birthday cards for the next couple of years (which were clearly written in his new wife's handwriting), but then stopped contact altogether. He refused to come to her college graduation, brushing off her attempts to reach out. "You're an adult now," he told her, "let me live my life and be happy for me."
She felt that the rug had been ripped out from under her. She blamed herself for him leaving. Not knowing where to turn to self-soothe the pain and confusion, she plunged into 10 years of drug addiction, compulsive eating, and other self-destructive behavior before landing on my couch in a desperate attempt to change her life. She was about to be 33, divorced, and had just had her first child. She felt like it was time to process the abandonment she had experienced so she did not pass the pain onto her child.
When we discuss parental abandonment, we often think of vulnerability. Images of small children or babies in foster care come to mind.
However, the effects of caregiver abandonment can be detrimental at any age. While it can be argued that smaller children are more at risk for lasting impact due to their stage of development, many people struggle with parental abandonment that happened during their adolescent or teen years—or even well into young adulthood.
Cassie's father wrongly assumed that because she had reached her teenage years, she was responsible for her own behavior and therefore did not need him anymore. He wanted to live his life without the responsibility of having to be a parent, and simply cut her off.
To most of us, this act seems abusive and wrong. How can a parent turn off their love like a light switch? While it can be assumed that her father was undoubtedly struggling with his own mental health concerns, the impact on the young woman Cassie was becoming was lasting.
Her pain was real, but it was ignored by many due to her age. "You're an adult now, it doesn't matter," her mother said to her, dismissing her feelings. "Well, you two never did get along," her uncle said, excusing the inexcusable behavior of an adult caregiver and projecting the blame onto the child.
Cassie's father blamed her behavior as his reason for leaving, and others in her life reinforced this cruel message, setting her up for a life of self-blame and loathing. When a caregiver abandons a toddler, few would think to blame the child. But for some reason, when a teenager or young adult is abandoned, society often assigns them the blame. "Their behavior was so bad, who could blame them?" Or, "There must have been something they did." This is the common whisper among unknowing onlookers who wrongly assume their behavior had to contribute to the caregiver throwing their hands up and leaving. In reality, there is no excuse: It is abandonment.
In our culture, we assume that older children need us less than they did when they were babies, when they were helpless and dependent on their caregivers for every need. And of course, this is true in a physical sense.
However, teenagers and young adults often need their parents a lot more than they are able to articulate. Just because they can feed and clothe themselves somewhat appropriately does not mean that they cease to benefit from parental guidance. Yes, that angry teenager or college student who tells you he hates you, and acts annoyed by your very presence, actually needs you.
Children in dysfunctional families are often put in age-inappropriate emotional and physical situations. And they are often treated as either older or younger than they are, developing personality characteristics that reflect that mistreatment, such as ultra-independence, learned helplessness, or codependency.
However, these personality traits are then held against them in the family unit. For example, Cassie was used as the emotional caregiver of her parents, often expected to handle the psychological stress of the family—but she was then punished for staying out late, talking back, and having many sexual relationships as a teenager. She was allowed to act like an adult, but only when it benefitted the family.
Her father "couldn't handle it anymore," and resigned from his job as a parent. This places an unfair and age-inappropriate burden on a young child who is then punished for acting in other adult ways. It's hypocritical and sends mixed messages to a developing brain. Children of all ages already blame themselves for traumas in their life. They do not need society pushing that self-blame further. Nothing tells a young person that they are less worthy of love than their own parent leaving them. Cassie felt scarred for life. Who wouldn't?
In therapy, Cassie worked on her feelings of abandonment that manifested as depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and chronic unhappiness. She reported an inability to leave unsafe or toxic relationships until the other person eventually just left her. She drank heavily, stuffed her feelings with food, and was scared to raise her child alone—even considering going back to her abusive ex-husband. She was so scared of repeating the abandonment she had suffered as a teen that she was willing to stay in an unsafe relationship. It took years of diving into the pain that she had experienced before she started to feel like she was worthy of love and healthy relationships.
Most parents will agree that their love for their children is unconditional and never-ending, but what happens when some caregivers do not feel the same? When someone is able to turn away from a child, no matter the age, this seems foreign and cruel—as it should. To another adult, the behavior often speaks to the pathology and mental health of the offending parent. But to the emerging adult, who does not yet have the tools to compartmentalize the situation, it has lasting effects on their very sense of self, with the trauma often manifesting for many years after.
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