Part I of a 2-Part Men’s Issues – Abandonment by Mothers Series
Common but TreatableFor a boy, abandonment by his mother has psychological effects that only become apparent when he is a man. Abandonment can mean either literal physical abandonment or emotional abandonment. In his book Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw considers the development of both forms of abandonment and their impact in later life. In this article, the first in a two-part series in which I discuss the beginnings of abandonment and explain why it is so formative for an infant, toddler, or young boy, I outline these different forms of abandonment and highlight the counseling issues that abandonment poses.
Actual physical absence makes a child aware that his parents have chosen not to be with him, which can make him feel that he is worthless. “If they are not here, then it’s because of me. There must be something wrong with me or they would choose to be with me.” Since the mother is the key caretaker, her decision to do other things is felt most poignantly. Even when a mother dies, the child can still conclude that if she had really wanted to be with him she wouldn’t have left. This is felt even more intensely when the mother leaves through divorce.
An infant is hyper-focused on every cue they get from their caregiver. They want to know that they are taken seriously, that they count, and that they will be responded to. If they know this, then an increasing sense of mutuality develops. But it is precisely this mutuality and relationality that remains undeveloped in the abandoned child, and that later shows up in men’s issues.
An infant and toddler need to know that their emotions are safe – that is, they need to know that they can become emotionally unglued and that Mom will not leave or fall apart. Falling apart, or shutting down, is a form of abandonment that occurs without anyone physically leaving. It is emotional abandonment. Being safe means knowing that his mother can handle him, and remains responsive to him without becoming shaken. It means knowing that his uncontrollable emotions will not drive her away and that he does not need to fear his own self.
Another way in which a mother can abandon her child emotionally is by shaming him for his emotions. Trying to get him to stop something by expressing her dismay or disappointment in him is just a more subtle form of abandonment.
Abandonment through Abuse – Emotional, Physical, or Sexual
According to Bradshaw, “All forms of child abuse are forms of abandonment. When parents abuse children, the abuse is about the parents’ own issues, not the child’s. This is why it is abuse.” All forms of abuse tend to produce shame and they all tend to be perpetuated by the victim in their adult family life. If you are a man who is abusive or know someone who is abusive, then explore the childhood issues and sense of shame that was most probably created by the same form of abuse you see today.
Abandonment Issues in Counseling
A man may not associate his struggles with abandonment and may not be aware of it. But when he comes for counseling for some symptoms of shame, worthlessness, or the repetition of the kinds of abuse he experienced in his own home, we may become aware together that abandonment is the source issue. Getting in touch with these feelings is a form of mindfulness, as one learns to understand what gave rise to them in the first place and what prompts them now.
It is difficult to provide a list of all the Scriptures that address shame as there are so many that seek to debunk and dethrone shame as a driver in your life. For example, Psalm 31:24 tells us to “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who hope in the LORD.” There are likewise so many verses that reassure you and that can help you to develop an increasing awareness of your worth that is not based on externals.
Finally, with regard to the abuse itself, it is likely that some work with the trauma will be necessary. This will help you to process the events, come to peace with them, and remember them. Moreover, a growing awareness of the abuse also brings forgiveness and mercy as you recognize the frailty, frustration, and victimization of either or both of your parents. You will also eventually want to proceed to begin the process of understanding what it means to genuinely honor each of your parents.
Christian Counseling for Men with Abandonment Issues
As you face all of these processes in healing from childhood abandonment, you may find it helpful to enlist the aid of a Christian counselor. It can be valuable to have someone who can recognize the parts and guide you through the process. It is especially helpful to have someone who can see how the Scriptures apply to your situation, and who can assure you of a future and a hope that is based on reality.
Healing the Shame That Binds You, by John BradshawPhotos
“Cuddling baby,” courtesy of guenter m. kirchweger, www.freeimages.com; “Mom’s Care,” courtesy of Shawn Perez, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “woman, thinking,” courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)