“Abandonment issues” is an informal term that describes a strong fear of losing loved ones or of them leaving a relationship. It is a form of anxiety that can affect relationships throughout life.

“Abandonment issues” is not a distinct diagnosis. As such, it can refer to many things.

Fear of abandonment can come from an anxious attachment style or early childhood trauma. It is also a feature of some mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Keep reading to learn more about abandonment issues in both adults and children, including the signs, causes, and treatment options.

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Fear of abandonment is not a distinct mental health condition. Instead, it is a type of anxiety that can manifest itself in different ways.

For example, some people who fear abandonment may feel generally insecure in relationships and need frequent reassurance from their partner. This is known as an anxious attachment style.

Attachment styles are the ways in which people form relationships. People develop an attachment style as they grow up. People with an anxious attachment style may:

  • worry that friends or partners will leave them
  • constantly look for signs that others do not really like them
  • need frequent reassurance that others love them
  • always try to please others, even at their own expense
  • give too much in relationships, or have a lack of boundaries
  • stay in unhealthy relationships due to a fear of being alone

Intense fear of abandonment can also be a feature of personality disorders, such as BPD and dependent personality disorder (DPD). These conditions have their own set of symptoms.

Signs of abandonment issues in children

In children, some degree of worry about caregivers leaving them is developmentally typical. This is known as separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a part of child development in infants and very young children. It typically begins between 6–12 months and peaks at around 3 years old. Signs include:

  • being reluctant to leave their caregiver
  • crying or having tantrums when a caregiver leaves the child somewhere
  • feeling anxious about going to day care or school

A child may continue to experience separation anxiety for much of early childhood. This is especially the case in new or unfamiliar settings, such as on the first day of school. This separation anxiety does not necessarily mean they will have abandonment issues as adults.

However, children who develop an anxious attachment style may go on to experience insecurity in other relationships, too. Sometimes, children develop an intense form of separation anxiety that doctors classify as a disorder.

How fear of abandonment affects a person can depend on the cause. However, this anxiety typically makes forming healthy and secure relationships with others more challenging. A person may:

  • Have anxiety: Both children and adults with fear of abandonment may feel chronically anxious, especially if they feel a relationship is about to end.
  • Experience relationship challenges: Anxiety about abandonment can alter a person’s perceptions of their relationship, causing them to see problems where none exist. They may be sensitive to any sign of rejection or find it difficult to trust that their partner will not leave. This can result in clingy behavior, which may impact the relationship.
  • Communicate poorly: People with abandonment issues may develop harmful communication techniques to ease their anxiety. For example, they may engage in attention-seeking behavior to get the love they feel they might lose.
  • Engage in harmful behavior: People with a fear of abandonment can sometimes try to prevent their partner from leaving them through manipulative or even abusive behavior. For example, a person may try to prevent someone from socializing with others. This is a form of coercive control.

The causes of a fear of abandonment are complex. For some people, a clear life event triggered the fear. For others, it may be a combination of factors. Some examples include:

  • Abandonment: Adults sometimes fear abandonment because they experienced it as children. This may have happened with a parent, foster parent, or another caregiver.
  • Neglect or abuse: Mistreatment from caregivers and behaviors that a child finds scary can be traumatic or cause anxiety, making it difficult to form healthy attachments. This may affect their future relationships. Early trauma or abuse is also a risk factor for BPD.
  • Family instability: A parent or caregiver who is not consistently affectionate or present may create anxiety in a child. This inconsistency could be intentional or unintentional.

A fear of abandonment is a symptom rather than a diagnosis. As a result, psychologists do not diagnose it.

However, they may identify a fear of abandonment as part of a wider pattern or as one symptom that could indicate a mental health condition.

A psychologist may ask a person questions to see if their symptoms match the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Clinicians use this manual to diagnose mental health conditions.

A person does not need a mental health diagnosis to get help. If fear of abandonment significantly affects a person’s life or relationships, they may benefit from professional support.

Talk therapy may help. During therapy, a person can explore their experiences of abandonment and potentially identify the cause of their anxiety.

Certain therapy models may be more helpful for certain types of abandonment fears. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy may help with separation anxiety, while dialectical behavior therapy may help with BPD.

A therapist can help individuals build self-esteem to feel more capable or lovable. They may also teach someone about establishing healthy boundaries and communicating effectively with partners.

Children with intense fears of abandonment can work with a child psychologist to address it. They may do this through play therapy, art therapy, or family therapy.

Supporting a person with a fear of abandonment can be challenging. They may perceive efforts to talk about the problem as criticism or worry that it means their partner will leave. As a result, it is important to approach conversations on this topic with patience and empathy.

When discussing someone else’s fear of abandonment, try to:

  • Offer plenty of reassurance.
  • Focus on them and how their fears are affecting their happiness.
  • Express concern and love.
  • Discuss what might help, if they are open to that discussion.
  • Remain calm and consistent throughout the conversation.

It may be helpful to avoid the term “abandonment issues.” This term can have a negative connotation and reinforce the idea that something is wrong with the person.

To avoid triggering anxiety, do not:

  • blame or criticize the person for their fear
  • demand they change without offering support
  • give them ultimatums, such as threatening to leave if they do not seek help

Supporting children

Children with a fear of abandonment may benefit from:

  • consistent reassurance and attention from caregivers
  • compassion and kindness
  • a regular daily routine, as this can make life more predictable and reassuring
  • regular check-ins that allow them to talk about their feelings

Remember that challenging behavior is often an expression of emotional turmoil. A caregiver may want to consult a child psychologist if their child experiences severe anxiety or does not gain confidence.

Individuals with abandonment issues will need to regularly manage their emotions to ensure the well-being of themselves and their relationships.

  • Practice noticing anxious or self-critical thoughts when they arise.
  • Counter these thoughts with self-compassion.
  • Practice self-care by getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and reducing unnecessary stress.
  • Build a good support network, staying in regular contact with friends and family.
  • Try activities that help build confidence outside of relationships, such as creative hobbies or sports.

Anyone who feels that abandonment issues negatively affect their mental health or relationships can seek support from a therapist. This may involve individual therapy, couple therapy, or family therapy.

People with a history of trauma or loss may also wish to speak with a mental health professional to address these issues, even if they do not seem directly related.

If a child shows signs of significant separation anxiety, a person may want to consult a pediatrician or child psychologist.

Abandonment issues can describe a range of things. As a result, there is no consensus on the outlook for people who fear abandonment. It depends on what is causing the fear.

For example, a person with an anxious attachment style may be able to build self-esteem through therapy. This can help ensure they no longer feel as anxious about being alone.

The prognosis for a condition such as BPD depends on the person’s ability to access treatment. Many people experience remission of symptoms, but this can take time and commitment.

Abandonment issues are a form of anxiety that occurs when an individual has a strong fear of losing loved ones. People with abandonment issues can have difficulties in relationships. They may exhibit symptoms such as codependency, clinginess, or manipulative behavior.

Therapy may help the person experiencing abandonment issues get to the root of their problems.

With support, both adults and children with a fear of abandonment can enjoy healthy relationships and good quality of life.