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Abandonment Trauma & Attachment Styles

Human babies are pretty much the most helpless of all newborn mammals; healthy human development requires physical and emotional needs to be met by parents or caregivers. Early interactions, both good and bad, between a child and their parent or caregiver impact all aspects of a child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. If the adults in a child's life fails to meet their physical or emotional needs, it can lead to abandonment issues.

Types of Abandonment Trauma
Physical Abandonment:
  • A child being given up for adoption

  • Loss of a parent due to military service, travel for work, incarceration, or death

  • Parents who have to work a lot outside of the home for socio-economic reasons

  • "Absent" caregivers due to addictions or mental illness

  • Divorce or marital separation and having to live in homes apart from one or both parents

Emotional Abandonment:
  • Squashing a child's emotional expression

  • Invalidating a child's feelings

  • Setting unrealistic performance and behavioral expectations

  • Trying to be a "friend" or peer at the expense of healthy boundaries and limits

  • Inconsistent attachment: sometimes warm and attentive and other times cold and unresponsive or abusive

  • Adults using the child to meet their own needs

  • Ridiculing or shaming a child

  • "Emotionally absent" caregivers due to addictions or mental illness

Abandonment issues show up in a person’s relationships, and tend to impact romantic relationships the most. People with abandonment issues are more likely to have developed specific defense mechanisms that make it more difficult to form close, healthy relationships. The particular types of defense mechanisms a person with abandonment issues develops can be different. These are categorized as different “attachment styles.”

More About Attachment...

According to Attachment Theory, early childhood interactions between a child and their caregivers is a primary determinant of whether a person develops a secure or insecure attachment style. According to the theory, when parents and caregivers respond in consistent warm, attentive ways to the feelings and needs of children, children develop a “secure attachment” and are able to develop normally. When this does not happen, the child remains in a state of chronic stress and fear, stunting their development and preventing specific important social and emotional milestones from being reached. This leads to the development of an “insecure attachment style.” (Bowlby, J.1980. Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss, New York: Basic Books.) While experiencing trauma in childhood is more likely to lead to insecure attachment, experiences later on in life may also cause insecure attachments and abandonment fears. For instance, being in an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive relationship, being cheated on or betrayed, or experiencing rejection as an adult could trigger these fears. Most researchers agree that there are three distinct types of insecure attachment styles. Each of the insecure attachment styles is believed to stem from relational trauma, and more specifically from early interactions with caregivers who were unresponsive, unpredictable, or abusive. Each insecure attachment style features distinct patterns of behavior, defense mechanisms, and ways of coping with the fear of abandonment. Three insecure attachment styles:

  1. Avoidant Attachment Style: People with an avoidant attachment style tend to cope with abandonment issues by not allowing people to get close to them, and not opening up and trusting others. They may be characteristically distant, private, or withdrawn. They often fear commitment and avoid conflict by either shutting down, leaving, or even ending the relationship.

  2. Anxious Attachment Style: People with this style cope with fears of abandonment by latching on to others and developing intensely close and dependent relationships. They often are needy, persistent, and have difficulty separating themselves from their partner in healthy ways. They tend to be emotionally reactive, interpreting conflict or arguments as a signal that their partner will leave them and engaging in fear-based behavior to avoid being abandoned.

  3. Disorganized Attachment Style: People with this style tend to be uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness, and often lack empathy. This attachment style is distinguished by inconsistencies in the way a person behaves and responds in relationships, sometimes exhibiting features of either anxious or avoidant styles.

Statistics on Abandonment Issues

Because of the interrelatedness between abandonment issues, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and insecure attachment styles, some of the following statistics provide a better understanding of abandonment issues :

  • 50% of children in the US will experience adversity before the age of 18

  • Children who experience adversity (ACE’s) are 3-4 times more likely to develop mental health conditions by the time they become adults

  • Worldwide, one-third of mental health conditions can be traced back to Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • The most common types of Adverse Childhood Experiences reported are:

  • Physical abuse (28.3%)

  • Substance abuse in the home (26.9%)

  • Parental separation or divorce (23.3%)

  • Sexual abuse (20.7%)

  • Mental illness in the home (19.4%)

  • Out of all substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect in 2018:

  • 60.8% were cases of neglect

  • 10.7% were cases of physical abuse

  • 7% were sexual abuse

  • 21.5% cases involved more than one kind of maltreatment

  • Children under the age of one year old are at highest risk of mistreatment, making up over 15% of all substantiated cases of abuse or neglect

  • In 91.7% of all substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect, the perpetrator is one or both parents

What Can We Do About It?

The good news is that you can heal from abandonment traumas. Here are a few things you can do to begin:

  • Learn more about your attachment style

  • Identify resources

  • Identify triggers and make connections to abandonment traumas from your past

  • Identify your response patterns and defense mechanisms

  • Practice more functional responses

  • Work with a qualified therapist

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