Abandonment issues arise when an individual has a strong fear of losing loved ones. A fear of abandonment is a form of anxiety. It often begins in childhood when a child experiences a traumatic loss.
Children who go through this experience may then begin to fear losing other important people in their lives. Some individuals continue to fear abandonment as they grow older. Although it is less common, abandonment issues can also sometimes begin in adulthood.
Abandonment issues can have a significant effect on a person’s life and relationships. Support and treatment can help reduce the anxiety.
Keep reading to learn more about abandonment issues in both adults and children, including the signs, causes, and treatment options.
Fear of abandonment is not a standalone mental health condition, such as depression, but it is a form of anxiety and even a phobia in some senses.
People with abandonment issues may experience problems in relationships because they fear that the other person will leave them. Signs and symptoms of abandonment issues in adults include:
- always wanting to please others (being a “people pleaser”)
- giving too much in relationships
- an inability to trust others
- pushing others away to avoid rejection
- feeling insecure in romantic partnerships and friendships
- a need for continual reassurance that others love them and will stay with them
- the need to control others
- persisting with unhealthy relationships
- the inability to maintain relationships
- moving quickly from one relationship to another
- sabotaging relationships
- lack of emotional intimacy
Individuals who experienced abandonment in childhood may find themselves drawn to people who will treat them poorly and eventually leave them. When this occurs, it reinforces their fears and distrust of others.
Signs and symptoms in children
In children, some degree of worry about caregivers leaving them alone is common. Separation anxiety is a normal part of development in infants and very young children. It typically peaks between 10 and 18 months and ends by the age of 3 years.
Separation anxiety and abandonment issues become a concern when the symptoms are severe or continue for a long time. In children, a fear of abandonment may manifest itself in the following ways:
- constant worry about being abandoned
- anxiety or panic when a parent or caregiver drops them at school or day care
- fear of being alone, including at bedtime
- frequent illness, which often has no apparent physical cause
- low self-esteem
In severe cases, such as those in which a child has experienced the loss of a parent or caregiver, they may develop unhealthy ways of coping, such as:
- disordered eating
- lashing out at others, either physically or verbally
In adopted children, research indicates that the child may experience the following due to feeling abandoned:
- aggression and angry behavior
- self-image problems
- daydreaming, as they try to make sense of their story and identity
- difficulty falling asleep
Abandonment issues arise from the loss of a loved one, such as a parent, caregiver, or romantic partner. The loss often stems from a trauma, such as a death or divorce.
Emotional abandonment, where a parent or caregiver is physically present but emotionally absent, may also give rise to abandonment issues later in life.
It is not clear what makes one person develop a fear of abandonment and not another when they have experienced similar losses.
Trauma — potentially from abuse or poverty — may play a role, as may the level of emotional support that a child receives following a loss.
As with other forms of anxiety, several additional factors may have an influence, including:
- environmental factors
- medical factors
- brain chemistry
Without treatment, abandonment issues in both adults and children can make it more challenging for the person to form healthy and secure relationships with others and to live a fulfilling life.
Individuals should seek help if they believe that they or a child for whom they care is experiencing abandonment issues.
People who have a history of trauma or childhood loss may also wish to speak to a doctor or mental health professional if they have not addressed these experiences before.
A fear of abandonment is not a medical condition. As such, a doctor cannot diagnose a person as having abandonment issues.
However, mental health professionals will typically recognize when a person is showing symptoms of anxiety due to feelings of abandonment in childhood or adulthood.
They may diagnose an anxiety disorder after carrying out a psychological evaluation or comparing the person’s symptoms to the criteria in the​ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
A mental health professional can also diagnose anxiety in children. In some cases, they may call it separation anxiety disorder, which is a recognized anxiety disorder.
The primary treatment for abandonment issues is therapy. During therapy, a person can explore their experiences of abandonment, including the root cause of their fears.
They can learn to identify negative thought patterns and replace them with healthier and more realistic ones. People may also grieve for their past losses during therapy or, in the case of an absent parent or caregiver, work toward reducing the mystery of abandonment.
A therapist can help an individual with abandonment issues learn how to establish healthy boundaries in relationships. Healthy boundaries allow individuals to avoid codependency, “people-pleasing” behaviors, and other actions that hinder the formation of healthy relationships.
In some cases, if a person’s anxiety is severe, a doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants. These may be a short-term solution until the person works through their issues in therapy.
Children will need to work with a child psychologist to address their fear of abandonment. They may do this through play therapy, art therapy, or family therapy.
It can be challenging to help someone with abandonment issues because they often push people away when they feel challenged or vulnerable.
The following techniques may help those supporting someone with abandonment issues:
- Stay calm during conversations, even when the person tries to provoke a response — they may be trying to “test’ their theory that everyone rejects them.
- Avoid pushing for answers, and allow the person to open up in their own time.
- Reply honestly and let them know how their behaviors affect others.
To support a child with abandonment issues:
- Seek help from a mental health professional, as prompt intervention provides the best possible outlook.
- Provide reassurance of love and support.
- Try to establish a routine and communicate it to the child — this predictability may be reassuring.
- Encourage the child to express their feelings, and react to those feelings in a neutral and nonjudgmental way.
Individuals who have abandonment issues will need to manage their emotions on an ongoing basis, even after treatment.
Techniques that may be helpful include:
- addressing negative thoughts when they arise and replacing them with more realistic ones
- practicing self-care, including exercising regularly, eating healthfully, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep
- staying connected to others by building a solid friendship group and getting involved in the wider community
- making time for hobbies and enjoyable activities, both alone and with others
- returning to therapy if old patterns begin to emerge again
The outlook for people with abandonment issues varies among individuals. Typically, people do best when they seek help and do so early. However, it is never too late to work on abandonment issues.
Children who have abandonment issues often experience mental health problems, such as depressive symptoms. However, early intervention may reduce the likelihood of long-term problems.
With treatment, both adults and children with a history of abandonment and loss can enjoy healthy relationships and a good quality of life.
Abandonment issues are a form of anxiety that occurs when an individual has a strong fear of losing loved ones.
It usually starts in childhood but can begin in adulthood as well.
People with abandonment issues often struggle in relationships, exhibiting symptoms such as codependency, an inability to develop trust, or even the tendency to sabotage relationships.
The cause of abandonment issues is usually trauma of some kind, such as the death or loss of a loved one.
Treatment usually involves therapy, in which the person experiencing abandonment issues can try to get to the root of their problems.
It is never too late to seek help for abandonment issues.