With the prevalence of neglect in the world today and the likeliness that many of us have faced abandonment in some form, it is vital to know how to identify abandonment trauma and to know what effects it has on our lives. Perhaps most importantly, it’s essential to know how to get help and what type of help is available.
What is Abandonment Trauma and How Does it Develop?
Abandonment trauma stems from an experience of permanently being left alone, either physically or emotionally, or of having the source of comfort and safety suddenly removed. Those experiencing it live in a state of constant anxiety.
These traumatic events can be when a caregiver is incarcerated, when a loved one has died, or when a family is evicted from their home. In many instances, abandonment trauma develops through consistent exposure to any of these events:
- Having a caregiver who is hot and cold when it comes to affection. They show you love one minute, then they do not. Their intentions are hard to discern.
- Having a caregiver who is emotionally unavailable, in most cases due to substance abuse or mental illness.
- Separation from a caregiver, either through deployment, death, incarceration, divorce, etc.
- Experiencing abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to love and care.
- Lack of stability in one’s home when the family often moves.
- The threat of abandonment itself.
Prolonged exposure to any of these events, or even a single devastating experience with one of them, can contribute to the development of abandonment trauma. At the very least, experiencing one or many of these events in childhood affects the development of our attachment style.
The Link Between Attachment Styles and Abandonment Trauma
Abandonment trauma does not only affect children. It can also affect adults. Here’s how.
When children are faced with hard and life-altering situations, they are faced with a situation that is too complicated to process. This may include the death of a caregiver, divorce, or incarceration of a parent. The only thing that resonates in a child’s mind is the fact they have been left by someone they trusted and loved.
As time passes on, this thought can develop into ideas of not being good enough for their caregiver to stay. Because of all of this, they develop an anxious attachment style which can make them overly dependent on their new caregivers. They might develop a constant need for validation and approval.
In cases where the child has moved from home to home (as in many foster situations), there may be a general unwillingness to integrate into the household culture, with the child instead of choosing to be private and detached. This will result in the development of the fearful-avoidant attachment style.
The child craves assurance but distrusts the very people who ought to be supplying it, due to the underlying abandonment trauma. Because of this, the child will determine that it is best to be independent and not rely on anyone.
The adults who have an anxious attachment style, stemming from abandonment trauma, will often find themselves independent or co-dependent relationships. These can be romantic, platonic, or even professional, but the common factor in each is their persistent need to give and receive constant attention and assurance. They may be a people-pleaser as well. They will also be terrified of confrontation.
Each of these attributes can be linked to a fear of abandonment. Sadly, this results in mental and emotional exhaustion. In many cases, the individual will hold onto a toxic love interest, remain in a negative work environment, or stay in a situation where they are bullied and tormented by a family member, co-worker, or spouse. They may stay simply out of fear that speaking up will potentially cause them to face abandonment as a result.
Whilst you will never be able to go back into the past and change the events surrounding abandonment trauma, hope is not lost. We can play an important part in the process of our recovery. Below are some suggestions:
Acknowledge the trauma
It has been said that we can only heal that which we are willing to confront. The first part of healing is coming to a place of recognizing our trauma and what might have caused it. This can be done with the help of a professional who will help uncover the trauma and underlying issues. When we recognize our pain we are more likely to view ourselves with less judgment and practice more self-compassion, a vital ingredient for healing.
Journaling can be cathartic. Journal entries help bring clarity to some of our life’s events and recognize our emotions and fears. It also helps track patterns that might be worth noting for our recovery. Journaling can also be an opportunity to monitor our growth, not to mention that it is also cathartic.
Unlearn unhealthy coping mechanisms
When we are now aware of our trauma and how it has been affecting us, it is time to confront ourselves and start unlearning some of those unhealthy patterns. An important part of this process is the ability to forgive ourselves for some patterns we might have displayed. If we hurt others along the way we need to take responsibility and try to make amends where possible. Now that we know better, we are expected to do better.
Read God’s Word and Prayer
When we keep connected to our Heavenly Father through prayer and reading His word, we are constantly reminded how much we are not alone and how much we are loved. When we use scripture as a tool, we can combat some of the negative self-talk that comes because of abandonment trauma.
Develop a Positive Self-Image
At the root of all abandonment trauma is the feeling of not being good enough for anyone to stay or love us for who we are. When we work on how we view ourselves, accept ourselves warts and all, and do the self-work needed, we will develop a positive self-image.
Having a positive self-image will inform how we let others treat us. This informs our boundaries and helps us not be surprised when others love and care for us because we already know we are worthy of love and respect.
Be Intentional In Relationships
When we have identified that we might be relating through the lens of our trauma, we now must be intentional in eliminating all the unhealthy ways we have been relating to others. When we love honestly and without fear, we allow others to love us and see us for who we are, and then build our community. It can be scary at first to take these risks, but they are always worth it in the end.
Forgive Those Who Left
Each case of abandonment trauma starts with us being left by those we thought would never leave us, either intentionally or unintentionally. When we forgive those that have deeply hurt us in this way, we set ourselves free from them and the effects of their abandonment. How we love and how we relate will no longer be tainted by their existence in conscience.
Self-work can be exhausting and often painful, so moving at your own pace is key. The important thing to remember is to be patient with yourself. This is trauma that you have likely been carrying for a long time, and you will not recover from it overnight. You can work in safety alone, dig as deep as you desire, and press pause if it becomes too painful.
Some people benefit from processing with others. It can be very important to gain perspective with help from a friend or professional. Conversation and verbal reflection can be the key to unlocking all the various layers that need to be shifted. If you find yourself in this situation and might need the help of a Christian counselor, do not hesitate to get in touch with us. We have licensed therapists available to walk the journey with you.
“Child with Arms Crossed”, Courtesy of Chinh Le Duc, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Down”, Courtesy of Arif Riyanto, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Journaling”, Courtesy of Marcos Paulo Prado, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Catching a Feather”, Courtesy of Javardh, Unsplash.com, CC0 License