Why Some Children Live With a Persistent Fear of Abandonment

Parents' post-divorce conflicts put kids at risk for lasting abandonment fears.

Posted Jan 17, 2021

As someone who lived through a "War of the Roses" style high-conflict divorce during my teenage years, I've always known that my parents' post-divorce warfare left many psychological scars. I'm not going to rehash all the nitty-gritty details of the "post-divorce interparental conflicts" my siblings and I endured during the half-decade my parents spent fighting about alimony and child support in the courts. I've recounted these adverse childhood experiences numerous times before. (See here, here, here, and here.)

Lisa Runnels/Pixabay
Source: Lisa Runnels/Pixabay

That said, the findings of a new study, "Longitudinal Effects of Post-Divorce Interparental Conflict on Children's Mental Health Problems Through Fear of Abandonment," opened my eyes to the possibility that the abandonment fears I've experienced since adolescence may be linked to things that transpired soon after my parents' marriage fell apart.

This paper (O'Hara et al., 2021) by Karey O'Hara and colleagues at Arizona State University's Research and Education Advancing Children's Health (REACH) Institute was published on January 12 in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development.

As the title of this paper elucidates, O'Hara's latest research focuses on the lasting effect that post-divorce parental conflicts have on kids' mental health through the lens of abandonment fears and asks the question: "Does parenting quality play a buffering role?"

To investigate this topic, the researchers asked hundreds of children (N = 559) between ages 9-18 participating in ASU's New Beginnings Program for Divorcing and Separating Families (NBP) about their exposure to conflict. Queries related to interparental conflict asked children if their parents fought in front of them, refused to communicate directly with one another, asked a child to carry messages, or spoke negatively about the other parent.

O'Hara et al. took a two-pronged approach that examined whether "fear of abandonment mediated the association between post-divorce interparental conflict (IPC) and mental health problems" and if "parent-child relationship quality moderated the association between IPC and fear of abandonment." Notably, the hypothesized protective effect of a child having a high-quality relationship with one of his or her parents was not observed.

Because high-quality parent-child relationships create a stress buffer for most children, before conducting this study, the researchers speculated that kids who had strong relationships with one of their parents would experience less fear of abandonment and fewer mental health problems. However, their findings suggest that parenting quality doesn't play a significant buffering role on a child's fear of abandonment when IPC is prevalent.

"Having a high-quality parenting relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of interparental conflict between divorced parents," O'Hara said in a news release.

"The fear of abandonment was persistent," the authors explain. "Exposure to parental conflict predicted fear of abandonment three months later. And, worrying about abandonment predicted mental health problems, as reported by the children themselves and their teachers, 10 months later."

"When parents who are married or cohabitating engage in conflict, the child might worry about their parents separating," O'Hara noted. "But children whose parents are divorced or separated have already seen the dissolution of their family. The idea that they might be abandoned might be unlikely, but it is not illogical from their perspective."

"Conflict between divorced or separated parents predicted children experiencing fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents," she added. "This feeling was associated with future mental health problems, especially for those who had strong relationships with their fathers. A strong father-child relationship came at a cost when interparental conflict was high."

Anecdotally, I've long suspected that having a strong relationship with Dad exacerbated my abandonment fears when my parents' divorce conflicts skyrocketed. As an "N of one," my life experience corroborates the latest research on the lasting impact of post-divorce interpersonal conflict. Therefore, I agree wholeheartedly with the researchers' conclusion: "[These] findings highlight the need to optimize child coping programs and improve parenting‐after‐divorce programs to reduce post-divorce interparental conflict."


Karey L. O’Hara, C. Aubrey Rhodes, Sharlene A. Wolchik, Irwin N. Sandler, Jenn Yun‐Tein. “Longitudinal Effects of PostDivorce Interparental Conflict on Children’s Mental Health Problems Through Fear of Abandonment: Does Parenting Quality Play a Buffering Role?” Child Development (First published: January 12, 2021) DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13539