The word “abandoned” evokes a picture of someone leaving a child alone on the side of the road or neglecting a child by not providing him or her with food, shelter, clothing or medical care. But abandonment is not just a dramatic act; it can also take the form of subtle and repeated acts of neglect or emotional abuse over time. And when it comes to children, emotional and physical abandonment can be just as damaging as a parent’s complete withdrawal.
While physical abandonment is relatively rare, many abandoned children are victims of emotional and even sexual neglect. These conditions can lead to serious psychological problems, including feelings of guilt, anxiety and low self-esteem. They may also have a difficult time trusting others or engaging in close relationships. This can be reflected in adult behaviors, such as codependency, relationship sabotage and insecurity or an unwillingness to commit to a long-term intimate relationship.
Emotional abandonment often stems from a lack of parental care or interest in the child’s well-being, such as failing to meet his or her basic needs or failing to make an effort to listen and respond to concerns. This kind of abandonment is sometimes referred to as a “toxic shame.” It can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and an inability to control one’s actions. It can also cause the child to develop an insecure style of attachment, characterized by fear and insecurity about being abandoned again.
Abandonment is also a common occurrence in impoverished families and communities. For example, in 1992, two sisters were left behind to fend for themselves in their parents’ Chicago apartment while they went on vacation. The girls were found living in a squalid shack ten days later, where they had been scrounging for food.
The effects of emotional and physical abandonment can last a lifetime. Abandoned children may experience difficulties in intimate relationships, a pattern of self-destructive behaviors or may struggle to find work and career satisfaction. They may also have a difficult time coping with losses or traumas. In some cases, a fear of abandonment can turn into a personality disorder.
It is important to understand that when a child feels abandoned, there may be no logical explanation. This is especially true if the child has no knowledge of what caused the abandonment. In these situations, the child naturally will blame herself for her parents’ decision to leave him or her. This is why it is so important to be available and talk openly with your children about the issue of abandonment. Respect their timelines and be patient—this is a process that requires ongoing attention. It is a vital step towards helping them become healthy, independent adults.