Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you

Perspective on
 Parental Abandonment

Causes, Effects, and Options

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

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  The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/abandon.htm

Updated  02-01-2015

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      This is one of a  series of articles in Lesson 1 in this Web site - free your true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and reduce significant psychological wounds. This article is for anyone fearing abandonment (rejection and aloneness), or caring about someone burdened with that fear. It provides...

  • a definition of "abandonment" in a family context;

  • perspective on common causes and effects of adult and child abandonment; and...

  • options for reducing significant fear of abandonment, which stresses many people and relationships.

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read in this article. It mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lesson 1

  • perspective on the Scared (inner) Child

  • perspective on excessive fears

      If you know someone who fears abandonment excessively, keep them in mind as you read this.


      When you think of the words "abandon" and "abandonment" in a family context, what comes to mind? How would you define "abandonment" to an average 10-year-old? Have you ever felt abandoned? Have you abandoned someone? What would you say is the opposite of abandonment? Can you describe (a) why some people abandon others, and (b) how abandonment affects typical kids, adults, and families?

      This article explores these questions to build a foundation for reducing significant personal fear of abandonment. This common fear hinders wholistic health and burdens relationships and families,

  What is "Abandonment"?

      For our purposes, abandonment is a relationship dynamic that occurs when an adult or child  voluntarily...

  • denies or ignores key responsibilities (a role) that someone expects them to fulfill, like parental or marital obligations, and/or they...

  • choose to end an existing relationship with someone else despite their partner/s not wanting that. This is specially traumatic when the abandoned one depends on the other person for something important, like a child or disabled adult does.

      Abandonment can be psychological (indifference, apathy, "coldness," lack of intimacy); and/ or physical. Psychological divorce occurs when one or both cohabiting mates abandon the other and their marital vows, roles, responsibilities, and relationship primacy.

      Discussion of abandonment usually focuses on an adult leaving or quitting. Family members can be equally affected if a child or grandchild "runs away from (abandons) home."

      Other types of abandonment occur when a person voluntarily gives up a dream, a cause, a belief, membership in a group, hope, the will to live, a lifestyle, and/or physical possessions. When circumstances force giving any of these up, that's an involuntary loss, not an abandonment. Do you agree?

      Some traumatic relationship and role "abandonments" are not intentional. They occur when the person is severely wounded and unable to form appropriate bonds and maintain relationships like parent-child, mate-mate, and friend-friend. A common sign of this is thinking or saying "You were never there for me."

      This distinction is important because of traditional moral and legal condemnation of parental or spousal abandonment. Wounded parents who abandon (aren't "emotionally available" for) their kids psychologically can't help it. They can control whether or nor to conceive or adopt a child or to vow commitment to a primary partner - if their true Self consistently guides their personality.

  What Causes Abandonment?

      Opinion - an adult or child abandoning a family is usually caused by effects from the inherited ancestral [wounds + unawareness] cycle. Quitting an assigned or chosen role (like parent, grandparent, husband, wife, partner, sibling, son, or daughter) and/or a relationship can occur because...

  • the role (responsibility) or relationship was unwanted, and/or was accepted without understanding what it required; or...

  • the person feels chronically overwhelmed by responsibilities and/or stress (discomforts) in a relationship, role, or group (like a home or family); and/or...

  • s/he feels incompetent, guilty, and ashamed of "failing" a dependent person and/or obligation; and s/he...

  • (a) doesn't see how to correct these stressors, and loses hope of improvement; or (b) s/he doesn't want to correct them.

      Each of these reasons is promoted by the person being psychologically-wounded and unaware + making unwise role and relationship choices + lacking knowledge and problem-solving ("coping") skills. How does this compare with your belief about people who abandon their dependents, parents, and/or obligations?

  How Can Abandonment Affect Kids and Adults?

      Abandonment impacts occur when...

  • an unborn child is unwanted, resented, and mistreated,

  • one or both parents are harsh, unresponsive, and/or absent to a young child;

  • parents divorce, and the absent parent chooses little or no contact with their kids or ex,

  • a young child's parent or caregiver dies or becomes mentally disabled,

  • young or overwhelmed parents give up a child for adoption,

  • bioparents turn over the care of their young child to an older sibling, relative, nanny, day-care adult, sitter, or au pair. And abandonment impacts occur when...

  • a young child is hospitalized for some time and deprived of regular contact with her/his mother or parents; and...

  • a parent chooses a job that requires her or him to be away from home for weeks or months at a time, like foreign military service. 

  Impacts on the Family System

      To fully appreciate the causes and multi-level impacts of adult or child abandonment, view the affected multi-generational ("extended") family as a dynamic system. Psychological or physical abandonment changes a family system's roles, roles, rituals, and traditions, subsystems, and social interactions in complex ways.

      These concurrent changes cause temporary or long-term anxieties until family members adapt to them and stabilize. They may lower the family's nurturance level ("functionality"), and usually cause most or all well-bonded family members significant losses which need to be mourned over time. 

  Impacts on Children

      The childhood and long-term effects of excessive parental absence can range from moderate to severe, depending on a child's age, gender, their bond with the absent adult (weak > strong), and their extended family's nurturance level (low > high). Common experience suggests that when young children are physically abandoned by a parent or caregiver - or if a primary caregiver is "emotionally unavailable" (can't bond) - the kids are "badly hurt." Their hurt is a mix of...

shock, if the abandonment was unexpected and/or explosive; and...

confusion - many mental questions and uncertainties about the abandonment and what it means; and...

shame ("low self esteem") - feeling unlovable and unworthy, even if other adults are genuinely nurturing and attentive; and perhaps their hurt includes...

guilts - feeling (irrationally) that they did something bad or wrong that caused the abandonment; and/or...

fears of (a) bonding with some or all adults / men / women; and that (b) their other caregivers may also abandon them, and they will die; and healthy kids feel ...

grief over (a) involuntarily broken bonds, and later, (b) over lost hopes and fantasies of reunion. If a child is raised in an ''anti-grief'' family, s/he can unconsciously carry unfinished mourning into adulthood as periodic or chronic "depression."

Combined, these stressors can cause mixes of significant distrust, resentment, and anger that often carry into adulthood. When combined with significant caregiver abuse and/or neglect, these stressors may inhibit the child's ability to bond ("Reactive Attachment Disorder," or RAD).

      Another impact that may not become evident until adulthood is the effect of parental absence on a young child's sense of gender identity. Typical young girls need a father-figure's affirmation and appreciation of their femininity. They also need consistent maternal modeling "how to be female" and delight in the daughter as a special, beloved girl. Boys need to observe how a father ("a man") behaves, and to learn how to manage and appreciate their masculinity - specially how to relate to females and other males.    

      If these hurts are intense enough, an abandoned child can develop emotional numbness and/or selective "amnesia" (repression) to protect themselves from recalling and re-experiencing their abandonment trauma and losses. One or more of their personality subselves may be living in the past, and still fear the searing pain of re-abandonment.

      These effects are often magnified because parental and spousal abandonment usually signals (a) a low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") home and childhood, and (b) significantly-wounded and unaware caregivers and ancestors.

      Minor kids can be also be stressed by other family members' reactions to the abandonment. If some family members scorn and vilify the adult or child who left, biokids are forced to choose between loyalty to their absent parent or sibling, and other relatives. Older, less-wounded kids may be able to detach and not align with either side without excessive guilt or anxiety.

      For more perspective, view this brief YouTube video on "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD)


Impact on Inner Kids

      Parental abandonment pain can nourish the development of psychologically-powerful inner children like these. Each upset Child evokes one or more devoted Guardian subselves which ceaselessly try to soothe and protect them in various situations. Collectively, these normal subselves can disable the resident true Self and detract from the development, self confidence, and wholistic health of the child.

      Some previously-abandoned teens can seek love, acceptance, and security through promiscuity or frantic trial primary relationships. Others can seek it through gang and/or athletic membership, drama, and/or fantasizing of reunions.

      Choices like these can mute but not heal the root causes of original abandonment pain. Unless kids' caregivers are...

  • aware of abandonment dynamics and impacts,

  • proactively reducing their own psychological wounds, and...

  • grieving their own losses effectively, then...

abandonment impacts add to the stress the adults must manage. Self-motivated wound-healing often begins in midlife if the adult hits true bottom.

  Impacts on Adults

      The effects of adult abandonment on themselves, their partner, and other family members depend on...

  • whether each person is usually guided by their true Self or not. The greater any psychological wounds and unawareness, the greater the impacts;

  • the bonding, loyalties, and priorities of each family member.

  • the effectiveness of the family-members' thinking and communication,

  • the quality of social support that each member has,

  • whether the abandonment was...

    • impulsive and sudden, or planned and foreseen, and...

    • caused by a romantic or sexual affair, and...

  • the affect of the abandonment on the family's financial stability and security; and...

  • the family's grieving and anger policies, and religious or ethnic traditions.

      Depending on factors like these, the abandoning person may feel significant regret, guilt, shame, anxiety, relief, frustration and/ or remorse for a time, or chronically. S/He may need to privately or socially distort what happened [e.g. deny it, and/or choose a victim role ("I had no choice!")] to justify their "irresponsible," "selfish," or "immoral" behavior.

      These compound emotions and related thoughts can add to the impact of the adult's unhealed wounds from their own childhood, and may promote addictions, self-neglect, and relationship avoidances and "cutoffs" with key family kids, adults and supporters.

      Abandonment and related cutoffs and "strained relations" can cause all family members significant losses and stresses. Unless the family is pro-grief and intentionally working to reduce psychological wounds and unawareness, these stressors may significantly lower the family's nurturance level. That raises the odds that the next generation will inherit and spread the toxic effects of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

       A major impact variable is whether family adults criticize, scorn, and shun the abandoning adult, or view her or him with compassion as a helpless victim of childhood neglect. Typical adults will need to be guided by their true Self to feel genuine compassion and forgiveness.

      Unaware and uninformed lay and professional people risk focusing only on the abandonment and its effects, rather than on the primary problems causing it (above) and how they affect the family system.

  Adapting to Abandonment

      A therapy client whom I'll call Marvin came in to reduce a significant depression . Our initial inter-view strongly suggested he was had survived a low-nurturance (neglectful) childhood. He said that his son had just turned six - the same age as when Marvin's father had left his mother and him to fend for themselves. She never told him why his father left, so he had to invent his own explanations.

      His wounded mother couldn't provide a pro-grief home, so young Marvin repressed his normal feelings of confusion, anger, loneliness, and sadness. He said that for years he feared he had done something that drove his father away. When I suggested that his "depression" might be long-overdue normal grief for his profound childhood losses, he said he felt "relieved."

      Over some weeks, I invited him to tell me how his father's abandonment had affected him as a boy, man, and divorced father. As he examined and described that, normal emotions surfaced, including bouts of healthy tears and intense anger at both parents.

      Marvin became interested in learning healthy grieving basics (Lesson 5) so he could protect his young son from blocked grief. As part of his own mourning, he decided to confront his mother about his father's leaving and her "never talking to me about it." He eventually stopped meeting with me as his "depression" gradually faded. 

      When an adult or teen abandons their mate or family, all members and close friends experience at least temporary stress from significant losses and family-system changes. Though details vary, there are several common personal tasks that family adults and kids need informed support with:

  • admitting and grieving (accepting) a web of losses (broken bonds), starting with "making sense" of what happened, and why;

  • self and mutual forgiveness;

  • admitting and reducing excessive guilts and shame to normal;

  • adjusting and stabilizing family roles, rules, rituals, loyalties, priorities, and identity;

  • maintaining or improving the family's nurturance level; and...

  • reducing fear of re-abandonment to normal - specially in young kids.

      These are all covered in this self-improvement course. The rest of this article focuses on options for preventing and...

Reducing Fear of Re-abandonment

      The first step toward managing this powerful anxiety is...


       The effects of an early-childhood abandonment from a caregiver's death or absence can be significant and long-lasting. They may be subtle and semi-conscious or obvious. It's probably unrealistic to try isolating the effects of abandonment trauma from others caused by a low-nurturance environment. Common symptoms of these stressors include... 

__  many of these behavioral symptoms of false-self dominance;

__  many of these general symptoms of excessive fears; and several of these:

__  a history of approach-avoid relationships,

__  clear symptoms of codependence (relationship addiction);

__  an implied or acknowledged fear of commitment to a primary partner;

__  excessive possessiveness or control of a primary partner;

__  excessive jealousy and suspicion in primary relationships;

__  expecting to be "dumped" by the current partner, despite genuine reassurances;

__  unusually strong emotional reactions to stories of child neglect or abandonment;

__  strongly identifying with abandoned children or adults;

__  strong biases against - or reactions to - adults who abandon their mates and children;

__  inability to remember appropriate details of known childhood abandonment;

__  excessive social isolation or compulsive socializing; and/or...

__  other unique symptoms.

These symptoms don't "prove" excessive fear of abandonment, but they suggest it. A normal defense against experiencing significant fear, shame, and guilts is reality distortions like denying and minimizing symptoms like these

      The fundamental requisite to reduce psychological wounds - including excessive fears - is to work patiently to empower your wise resident true Self to lead your other personality subselves. Lesson-1 articles and the related guidebook provide a practical framework for doing that.

       Trying to reduce fears and related guilt and shame with "willpower," logic, and "right thinking" rarely works. Reducing fear of abandonment usually requires creative "parts work" with common subselves like these:

the Scared Child

the Shamed Child

the Nurturer

the angry Child

the Abandoned/Lonely Child

the Magician (distorter)

the Inner Critic

the Blocker and/or Numb-er

the Pleaser

the Catastrophizer

the Doubter/Cynic

the Spiritual One

      The work goes like this...

identify which Guardian parts are protecting each of the young subselves, and...

establish trust between each of these parts and the true Self and Nurturer. Then...

assess whether any of these Inner Kids and Guardians are living in the past, and bring any who are to live safely in the present with their fellow subselves. Then...

work patiently and creatively with each Inner Child to help them (a) tell their abandonment story as often as they need to, and (b) validate and (c) safely release any repressed memories and emotions like rage, fear, guilt, and sadness. And...

plan and make any useful confrontations and forgivenesses with family members and others causing or affected by the original abandonment.

test for significant codependence (relationship addiction), and work as needed with the well-meaning Addict subself to reduce any such compulsions. As you do these steps...  

balance (a) reducing fear of abandonment with (b) spotting and reducing related psychological wounds and grieving unmourned losses from other early traumas and deprivations.

repeat any of these steps as needed to consolidate the gains and increase the harmony and teamwork of all your subselves under the leadership of your Self (capital "S") and other talented Manager subselves .

      Tailor these steps to fit your situation, and consider working with a professional inner-family therapist to facilitate your progress. Keep your perspective: the goal is not just to reduce the fear of re-abandonment. It is to patiently unify and harmonize your talented subselves under the expert leadership of your Manager personality parts and benign Higher Power.

      Pause and reflect - how do you feel about the ideas you just studied? Do they make enough sense and seem credible enough?


      The human saga is speckled with examples of parents and mates abandoning their partners and children - i.e. of giving up on their role-responsibilities, vows, and relationships, and traumatizing their families. Other stories focus on the trauma of children abandoning their parents and siblings. This article examines

  • what parental "abandonment" is;

  • what usually causes it, and...

  • typical effects of abandonment on average kids and adults.

It closes with suggestions for reducing crippling adult fear of re-abandonment using inner-family therapy, or "parts work."

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or 'someone else'?

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