One of the more recent labels popularized by psychology pop culture is the term “abandonment”. Clients will frequently start an introductory session with “I have abandonment issues” but it’s rare that they truly understand how those “issues” play out in defensive responses and/or daily behavior. Abandonment by definition refers to being ‘left’ and is clearly recognizable when there is early history of the death of a parent or divorce/separation; perhaps an absentee parent. But emotional abandonment by parents –for whatever reason – can also deeply impact a child.
Generally speaking, abandonment issues develop when a child experiences the withdrawal or absence of a parent’s attention / demonstration of affection. Clearly, death provokes this but so do many other situations that can occur in our lives. Divorce, career, addiction, and/or emotional difficulty may affect one’s ability to effectively demonstrate care and affection to one’s child. More specifically, those life events may impact a child’s PERCEPTION of a parent’s ability to offer love and support.
The intent of this article is in no way intended to induce guilt or shame on the part of a parent who has struggled through difficult times, but to educate on the consequences – many of which could never have been avoided. In no way is this article pointing a finger of blame as most of us – do the best that we can, under the circumstances, at any given moment. The intention herein is to educate and to inspire you introspect in a way that may help you to identify patterns of defense that relate to ‘old stuff’ and not current day realities.
Interestingly, many of the clients I see with ‘control issues’ also have abandonment in their history. Often, these control tendencies’ are highly misunderstood by others and are merely a way for an individual to feel “safe” as they move about their environment; a habit stemming from the days when they felt life was ‘out of control’.
Jane’s mother died when Jane was 12 and her father was emotionally devastated and became severely depressed. Jane was the oldest of four children and immediately took over the maternal role for the family as directed by well meaning extended relatives (“you’ve got to be a big girl now”…) In a matter of days, Jane’s entire existence changed dramatically as she went from carefree adolescent to a grieving, scared, but responsible young woman. In an effort to “survive”, Jane instinctually began gathering into her environment those things that were “controllable”; that allowed her to feel safe. She learned to be directive, firm, and let’s face it… “bossy” as she learned to manage the grief and emotional chaos that had become part of her daily life.
Unknowingly, she adopted a habit of ‘taking control’ as a defense mechanism each and every time her “emotional safety” was jeopardized. Anytime she was unsure of an outcome, it became important for her to ‘have control’ so that she felt emotional secure.
Another byproduct of this is trust…. Jane realized that she was unconsciously NOT trusting of people to stay a part of her life because even if they wanted to stay (like her mother), death was always a possibility – hence abandonment was always waiting in the wings.
In addition – Fear of DEPENDING became problematic in group work and relationships. Jane felt unable to TRUST that people in her environment were DEPENDABLE as abandonment possibilities were always lurking.
Suffice it to say that all of this happens at a sub-conscious level. When first asked, Jane spoke of how proud she was that responsibility came easily to her and that she was able to honor her mother by stepping up to the plate when tragedy struck. And while all that is true and wonderful, there were underlying consequences that continued to impact Jane in negative ways throughout the early years of her adult life. It wasn’t until Jane was able to understand that she deployed these same ‘controlling’ defense strategies REGARDLESS of the surrounding circumstances – they were her “go to” defenses – and learned to allow herself to become vulnerable to feeling loss, that her behavior/demeanor began to slowly change. Likewise, Jane learned that she could express her feelings and fears in a way that ‘deactivated’ the need to generate defensive posture.
It is important to note that “literal” abandonment does not have to occur; a child can develop these defense reactions simply by their “perception” of abandonment. In a different case study:
11 year old Ellen was emotionally abandoned when her young brother was diagnosed with Autism and her parents became hyper focused on his treatments. (The behavior patterns were almost identical.) The identification of abandoned feelings took some time as they were blanketed in her own concern for her brother and pride in all the recognition she received for being such a devoted big sister (which she was but she was still a kid with her own needs….).
Logic does not necessarily transcend through abandonment ‘issues’. It is logical and rational to know that someone who dies is not ‘willingly’ leaving us… It is logical and rational to know that parents who fight all the time should not stay married… It is logical and rational to know that mom and/or dad is working to build a better life for us… It is logical and rational to understand that mom doesn’t ‘want’ to be depressed… or that dad’s addiction is a disease but…
All that aside, we have FEELINGS and especially as a child or early adolescent, we just want to be loved and cared for – we have yet to understand or take a look at how to emotionally care for ourselves. We don’t realize that we are feeling abandoned…. We only know that what we feel doesn’t feel good and we implement strategies that protect us from feeling bad…. We just forget to go back and reprogram our minds and hearts when we know better!
** All names and story details have been altered to protect identity – any resemblance to reality is strictly coincidental.
** If emotional duress is triggered by reading this article, please seek mental health help / support immediately.