From the moment we are born, we learn to relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us through our relationship with our primary caregiver(s), usually our parents. We form strong attachments to our caregivers, who nurture us and attune to our emotional needs. This attachment is crucial for our physical, psychological, and social development.1
If we were fortunate enough to grow up with an attuned caregiver, who could respond to our needs with gentleness and compassion, we had a chance to grow into a healthy adult. Children who receive attuned care and nurturing from a caregiver develop a strong sense of self-esteem, feel secure in exploring the world around them, and feel a sense of confidence and trust in their adult professional, familial, platonic, and romantic relationships.2
Unfortunately, attuned caregiver-child relationships are not a reality for many children and adults. Often, this crucial early relationship can break down, and the child may suffer from abandonment trauma.
Abandonment trauma can occur when a parent is not emotionally available to their child. This can happen on a physical level (i.e. the parent has died or has left the child with another carer) or on an emotional level, such as when the caregiver struggles with substance abuse or other mental or behavioural health issues that get in the way of compassionate attunement.
Children who experience abandonment trauma feel unsafe in their bodies and the world. They are likely to feel low self-worth, shame, insecurity, and uncertainty about getting their needs met. Abandonment trauma in childhood can have a lasting impact on a person’s psyche, carried from childhood into adulthood. As such, abandonment trauma increases one’s risk of developing health issues such as3:
Substance use disorder (SUD)
Eating disorders (Bulimia nervosa, anorexia nerviosa)
Mental health issues – depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder
The relationship we experience with our primary caregiver(s) during our developmental years teaches us how to be and feel in relationships in later life. This crucial relationship shows us how to bond with others, identify our needs, and give and accept love.
On the other hand, traumatic experiences during childhood, such as living with a mentally ill parent, or a parent who struggles with SUD, and is therefore unable to adequately attune to and care for their child, can disrupt a child’s development and impact their ability to find and maintain healthy, satisfying, and mutually-beneficial relationships.4
Other circumstances that can lead to abandonment trauma include parental separation or divorce, incarceration of a parent, and sudden death of a parent.5 Not every child who experiences these circumstances will suffer from the long-term effects of abandonment trauma. Other types of trauma or dysfunction within the family can still lead to the onset of such symptoms.
It is natural for children to experience some degree of worry regarding their caregivers’ emotional and physical proximity. Many children experience completely natural separation anxiety as part of their early development. In most cases, separation anxiety hits a peak at around one year old and ends by age three.6
Separation anxiety and the fear of abandonment become a cause for concern when they persist throughout the child’s life. Fear of abandonment manifests in children as:
Excessive worry about being abandoned
Worrying, crying, resistance when left at school or after school by a parent
Clinginess to parents and teachers
Reluctance to being left alone
Medically unexplained physical illness
Older children who have experienced severe abandonment trauma, such as the sudden loss of a parent, are at risk of developing maladaptive coping behaviours such as:
Physical or verbal aggression towards others
Research published in Paediatrics & Child Health has found that adopted children who feel abandoned are likely to experience any of the following7:
According to the World Health Organisation, the adverse effects of abandonment trauma ‘occur because children, whose care is less than adequate or whose care is disrupted in some way, may not receive sufficient nutrition; they may be subjected to stress; they may be physically abused and neglected; they may develop malnutrition; they may not grow well; and early signs of illness may not be detected.’8
Abandonment trauma, also known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) of abandonment, is caused by experiences that make us feel unsafe, insecure, and alone as children. The emotional distress that stems from this type of trauma can persist throughout the lifespan and lead to many health complications. Typical causes of abandonment trauma include:
An emotionally unavailable parent
Neglect as a result of parental substance abuse
Mental illness in a parent
Sudden loss of a parent on whom the child depended for care and safety
Significant family instability or dysfunction
Children who have experienced trauma associated with the child-caregiver relationship require early intervention and support.9 If left unresolved, abandonment trauma can manifest in later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-worth.
Abandonment trauma leads to unhealthy relationships because the trauma survivor might become dependent on the other person for validation and love. As such, they will fear rejection or abandonment. The person suffering might not know why they are clinging to their partner, especially when the relationship is unhealthy or abusive.
The trauma survivor may be reluctant to end the relationship because, deep down, they have unresolved feelings and emotions associated with their earliest relationship, that with their primary caregiver, and do not want to face those feelings alone.
‘Many a friendship or marriage has failed because, instead of relating to and caring for one another, one person another as a shield against isolation.’10 – Irvin D. Yalom
The need to escape from or mask early traumatic memories can manifest as obsessive and clingy relationships. It can also manifest in other ways. Trauma of any kind can lead the survivor into health-risk behaviours such as substance abuse, self-harm, or eating disorders.11 All of these behaviours put the survivor at risk of further health complications and even death. As such, early trauma treatment is essential.
Children’s brains are still in early development. While this makes them more susceptible to the adverse effects of trauma12, it also makes them more open and receptive to evidence-based, trauma-informed interventions.
Abandonment trauma can make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships. As such, abandonment trauma can lead to feelings of deep loneliness and isolation, which are significant health risks. Humans are hardwired to bond and collaborate with others and nourish each other with compassion, attunement, and affection.
Suppose a person struggling with abandonment trauma experiences multiple failed relationships due to their early life experiences. In that case, they may soon feel hopeless and lost and may seek out maladaptive means of coping with their feelings.
One of the most crucial protective factors available to child trauma survivors is attuned and compassionate support as soon as possible after a traumatic event.13 Of course, providing support is complex when the trauma is ongoing and takes place in the home, and is perpetrated by a caregiver.
Still, safe family members may recognise the need for intervention and seek professional help when possible. Teachers and other non-familial carers can also support child trauma survivors by recognising the signs and symptoms and consulting a mental health professional in due time.
1 World Health Organization. (2004). The importance of caregiver-child interactions for the survival and healthy development of young children : a review. World Health Organization. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/42878
2 Rees, Corinne. “Childhood attachment.” The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 57,544 (2007): 920-2. doi:10.3399/096016407782317955
3 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. n.d. Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress. [online] Available at: <https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/recognizing-and-treating-child-traumatic-stress> [Accessed 19 April 2021].
5 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. n.d. Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress. [online] Available at: <https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/recognizing-and-treating-child-traumatic-stress> [Accessed 19 April 2021].
6 Stanfordchildrens.org. n.d. Separation Anxiety. [online] Available at: <https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-90-P02283> [Accessed 20 April 2021].
7 “Understanding adoption: A developmental approach.” Paediatrics & child health vol. 6,5 (2001): 281-91. doi:10.1093/pch/6.5.281
8 World Health Organization. (2004). The importance of caregiver-child interactions for the survival and healthy development of young children : a review. World Health Organization. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/42878
9 Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Parenting a child who has experienced trauma. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
10 Yalom, Irvin D. Love’s Executioner, and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2012. Print.
11 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
12 De Bellis, Michael D, and Abigail Zisk. “The biological effects of childhood trauma.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 23,2 (2014): 185-222, vii. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002
13 Kimberg, L. and Wheeler, M., 2019. Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care. Trauma-Informed Healthcare Approaches, [online] pp.25-56. Available at: <https://www.acesaware.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Chapter-2-Trauma-and-Trauma-Informed-Care.pdf> [Accessed 20 April 2021].