How Abandonment Trauma Affects Children and Teens Emotional Well-being
Children are born needing the help and love of their parents. An infant cannot meet any needs for itself and thus relies entirely on its caregiver for daily life needs. This need hardwires the brain to look for attachment and emotional connection.
When a parent meets a baby’s needs, the baby develops healthy attachments. As the baby grows, those healthy attachments teach the child how to create healthy, long-lasting relationships.
When something disrupts that healthy attachment, the child suffers not only physically but also emotionally. For some, a condition known as abandonment trauma develops. The emotional effects of abandonment may not show up immediately after the abandonment incident.
Sometimes, adolescents and adults start showing signs of trauma stemming from the abandonment they suffered as young children. This is known as abandonment trauma, and it can have long-lasting effects if left untreated.
What is Abandonment Trauma?
When someone is abandoned as a child, whether it is physical abandonment or emotional neglect that feels like abandonment, it causes trauma. Abandonment causes emotional pain that is difficult for a child to understand and process. The person experiencing abandonment trauma will exhibit signs of trauma, yet they may not be able to pinpoint a specific cause for those signs.
Causes of Abandonment Trauma
Most people would recognize actual abandonment by a parent or close loved one as abandonment, but the causes can be more subtle. For example, a caretaker or parent can be physically present for the child’s entire life but emotionally abusive, and this can cause a trauma response.
In general, any sudden end to a relationship with a parent or someone who is seen as a parental figure will cause this issue. Some common reasons someone may experience abandonment trauma include:
Having basic physical needs go unmet, even if the caretaker is present
The death of a caretaker or close loved one
The removal of a parent from the child’s life due to separation or divorce
Being placed in or left in a physically dangerous position by a caretaker
Having an emotionally detached parent
Being ghosted by someone the person is close to
Sometimes, a child will experience something as abandonment that the caretaker did not intend to be abandonment. The child’s limited cognitive abilities cause them to perceive the situation as abandonment and create a trauma response.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
One of the challenges of treating abandonment trauma is the symptoms sometimes do not show up until long after the initial incident occurs. Because the child doesn’t have the emotional fortitude to process what they are experiencing, the long-term effects are quite impactful. Some symptoms include:
- Depression – In one study, over 75% of participants had depression symptoms as adults when they had childhood trauma, including abandonment trauma.
- Self-injurious behavior – In an effort to numb the emotional feelings caused by abandonment, many adolescents will turn to self-injurious behaviors.
- Relationship issues – Abandonment and neglect in childhood lead to insecure attachment styles. This makes it more difficult for the adolescent or adult to make healthy relationships and attachments with others. They either keep people at arm’s length, or they become controlling.
- Hypervigilance – Adolescents who have suffered childhood trauma may be hypervigilant. Their anxiety goes on high alert, and they are constantly looking for the next “shoe to fall” or assuming the next person in their life will abandon them too.
- Fear and anxiety – These teens are plagued with fear and anxiety that may not be helped well by traditional treatment methods. Some people will develop panic disorders as a response to abandonment.
- Low self-esteem – Children often blame themselves for the abandonment and develop low self-esteem.
In order to diagnose someone with abandonment trauma, the person needs an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional. The mental health professional will consider the potential abandonment, the person’s symptoms, and whether the two are potentially linked.
How to Treat Abandonment Trauma
The effects of abandonment trauma can be quite severe, and treatment early in the person’s life will help reduce the long-term effects. If you can get your child help as a teen, you may be able to avoid the anxiety and relationship issues that can cause serious harm as an adult.
Therapy is the first line of defense against the effects of abandonment trauma. Therapists help the person work through their feelings and their effects. They can teach healthy coping mechanisms that can turn off hypervigilance and help the person build healthy attachments.
Lifestyle changes can also help. Focusing on getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising can reduce anxiety and give the teen a healthy focus. Utilizing healthy relaxation techniques can reduce instances of self-injurious behavior.
If the abandonment trauma effects are intense, a child may benefit from residential treatment. Residential treatment allows them to tune out outside distractions, like school and friends, to focus on healing their internal trauma.
The long-term effects of abandonment trauma should not be ignored. The relationship issues this problem causes will impact a teen well into adulthood. Because the trauma response does not show up until years later, parents need to be aware of the impact of abandonment so they can seek help quickly if their teen starts to show signs of abandonment trauma.
Frequently Asked Questions About Children and Teens Who Experienced Loss
Abandonment trauma in children of loss refers to the emotional pain and distress experienced by children who have experienced the loss or separation of a parent or caregiver, resulting in feelings of fear, insecurity, and emotional pain.
Some common symptoms of abandonment trauma in children of loss include anxiety, depression, feelings of emptiness, difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, anger, and behavioral problems.
Abandonment trauma in children of loss can be treated through a variety of psychotherapeutic approaches, such as play therapy, family therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Treatment may involve working through past traumas, developing coping skills, and building a support system.
The length of treatment for abandonment trauma in children and teens varies depending on the severity of the trauma and the child’s response to therapy. Some children may see significant improvement in a few weeks or months, while others may require longer-term therapy.
Medication may be used to help manage symptoms of abandonment trauma in children of loss, such as anxiety and depression. However, medication alone is generally not considered a complete treatment for abandonment trauma and is typically used in conjunction with psychotherapy.
Some self-care strategies for parents of children experiencing abandonment trauma include seeking support from family and friends, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and educating themselves about abandonment trauma and its effects.
While the effects of abandonment trauma in children and teenagers may never completely disappear, it is possible to significantly reduce symptoms and improve overall well-being through therapy and support. With proper treatment and support, many children of loss are able to lead fulfilling and satisfying lives.
Resources for Parents and Caretakers
- The Mighty – An online community for parents and caregivers of children with various mental health conditions, including abandonment trauma.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – Offers resources and support for families and caregivers of individuals with mental health conditions.
- The Attachment & Trauma Network – Provides resources and support for parents of children with attachment disorders and other trauma-related issues.
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*The SWIRL framework, which outlines the 5 phases of abandonment, was developed by Susan Anderson, a psychotherapist, and author who specializes in this topic. This video provides a simple recap/summary of the 5 phases based on Anderson’s model and is intended to promote education on healing from trauma. We acknowledge and credit Susan Anderson as the creator of the SWIRL framework. This file is intended for educational purposes only.