What are abandonment issues? Causes, symptoms, and how to overcome them

Few other psychological conditions affect an individual’s ability to function quite like abandonment issues. Often formed in response to a traumatic or neglectful childhood experience, abandonment issues can wreak havoc on the emotional and external lives of both children and adults who struggle to see their own value and to perceive others as trustworthy.

Though painful, and often deeply ingrained, abandonment issues can be worked through with dedication from the affected individual and a skilled and empathetic counselor or therapist.

What Are Abandonment Issues?

Abandonment issues are typically characterized in individuals as a struggle with a perceived or real fear of being left or of interpersonal relationships ending. Abandonment issues often involve someone having an intense reaction to a real or perceived threat of abandonment and engaging in behaviors meant to prevent being left. 

Abandonment issues can also cause a person to have a very low threshold for the perception of abandonment, and thus may misinterpret signals from a partner, friend, family member, or significant interpersonal relationship in which they feel that they are being rejected. Any small word or action can then be construed as that person being mad at them, not being interested in them, and/or overall wanting to leave them.

Signs of abandonment issues include disproportionate reactions to abandonment, clinginess, needing reassurance, difficulty being vulnerable, little sense of self, oversharing, fear of being alone, and insecurity.

Why Do I Have Abandonment Issues? What Triggered My Abandonment Issues?

Many people have experienced abandonment in some way or another, and everybody copes with their fears differently. The following are situations that can cause feelings of abandonment in childhood:

  • Childhood abandonment (particularly abandonment by parental figures)
  • Childhood physical or sexual abuse
  • Growing up with neglectful parents
  • Growing up with absent parents
  • Overly critical/authoritarian-style parenting
  • A beloved person passing away
  • Difficulty sustaining friendships as a child
  • Bullying/forms of social rejection
  • Getting rejected by somebody you love
  • Witnessing your parents’ divorce

Abandonment is about feeling disconnected from other people. It can be an experience that leaves an individual with feelings of rejection, feeling as if others were not there for them when they were most needed. 

Emotional abandonment, specifically, often occurs as a result of parents not providing the emotional conditions and/or environment needed for the child to develop healthy attachment. The result of emotional abandonment can be withdrawal, people-pleasing, or hiding a part of who they are in order to avoid rejection. 

The following are other experiences that can cause feelings of abandonment in childhood:

  • Children can’t live up to their parents’ expectations because they are often unrealistic and not age-appropriate.
  • Children are held responsible for other people’s behaviors. They may be blamed for the actions and feelings of their parents.
  • Children receive disapproval for their entire beings rather than a particular behavior. Examples of this are when a child is told they are worthless when they do not do their homework, or they are never going to be a good dancer because they missed a step in dance class.
  • Parents do not view children as separate beings from themselves.
  • Parents expect children to be extensions of themselves.
  • Parents are not willing to take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, but they expect their children to take responsibility for them.
  • Parents’ self-esteem is sought through their child’s behavior.
  • Children are treated as peers with no parent/child distinction.

Sometimes, abandonment issues can also be learned by observation of relational behavior patterns from your parents or other family members within your household of origin as a child.

The Effects of Abandonment on Children

Children’s brains register things differently than adults. What may seem like something minimal now as an adult could have been a serious issue to the child we once were, and stays in our subconscious as trauma.

Children take their experiences as the truth and often have a simplified, sometimes “black and white,” perspective on life. These experiences and perspectives form their “core beliefs.” As adults, people keep many of these unconscious beliefs about how the world works. 

Children who feel abandoned may develop beliefs, such as not deserving to feel safe, that the world is a dangerous place, that they can’t rely on anyone to always be there for them or they don’t deserve to be loved or cared for. As these beliefs continue to stay in the subconscious, they can lead individuals to make decisions that hinder their happiness as adults.

Signs of Abandonment Issues in Children

Abandonment issues in children can be both obvious and hidden. Here are some common signs that your child may be experiencing abandonment issues: 

  • Need for reassurance
  • Difficulty sleeping at night (needing parents in the room)
  • Difficulty letting parents out of their sight
  • Difficulty being independent when dropped of at school
  • Difficulty making friendships
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Needing to talk to a parent/have access to them 24/7
  • Reduced/increased appetite
  • Decreased attention span
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Poor academic performance
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Frequent crying
  • Heightened sensitivity

If you think your child might be struggling with abandonment issues, consider having them speak with a mental health professional about how they feel. They can help them figure out what’s wrong and give them tools to help manage their emotions in a way that is accessible to them.

Is Abandonment a Form of Trauma?

Abandonment can certainly serve as a form of trauma. For children, abandonment by a parent is a significant source of trauma and can significantly increase the likelihood of developing relational struggles into adulthood. 

Abandonment in the form of an ended romantic relationship or friendship can also cause trauma, but it is more dependent on the circumstances and the situation. The more risk factors and the less protective factors exist, the higher the likelihood that someone will develop abandonment issues from the event. 

The more protective factors that are present, though, the more insulated an individual is from potential psychological harm, making them less likely to develop struggles with abandonment issues.

Are Abandonment Issues an Insecurity?

Abandonment can be categorized as an overall form of pervasive insecurity, though that is a very generalized way of thinking of it. 

In clinical terms, insecurities are rooted in core hurt (sometimes trauma) that have caused changes to the way a person thinks, behaves, and views the world. 

In truth, the term “abandonment issues” is a way of referring to both the core hurt (event that caused feelings of abandonment) and the specific insecurities that the lingering trauma from that event can cause. In that sense, abandonment issues cause insecurity, but that’s not all that they are.

Why Do I Have Abandonment Issues If I Was Never Abandoned?

Abandonment issues can arise from both real or perceived (imagined) abandonment. Perceived abandonment is a form of anxiety, so even though you might not have literally experienced abandonment, you might suffer from a form of anxiety that might distort your view of reality and cause you to believe that there are factors in place that are increasing the likelihood of you being abandoned. 

In other words, anxiety and other learned behaviors can cause us to behave in self-preservative ways (jumping to conclusions to protect ourselves from real or perceived abandonment) even when we haven’t experienced it firsthand.

It can also make events that are not, in reality, an act of abandonment feel like being abandoned. When this happens, the effects of the perceived abandonment can sit in the subconscious and distort one’s relationship with reality and truth, sometimes without us knowing it’s there. Often, it takes professional mental health care to unearth those beliefs and reconcile those internal beliefs about oneself and the world with the truth.

What Do Abandonment Issues Look Like in a Woman?

Abandonment issues in women look very similar to those that are seen in men. In fact, it’s a myth that there are significant differences in its expression in women and men. 

In women, abandonment issues typically manifest in: 

  • Anxiety/worry 
  • Jealousy
  • Possessiveness
  • Difficulty with trust
  • Difficulty spending time apart from the identified person
  • Constant checking for reassurance
  • Feelings of pervasive insecurity and personal inadequacy
  • Oversharing behaviors
  • Challenges with conflict
  • Difficulty being vulnerable with their partner

If you think you might have issues with abandonment or are having trouble maintaining healthy relationships, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can help you identify the root of the issue and guide you through the process of healing. 

What Are the Signs of Abandonment Issues? Signs of Abandonment Issues in Adults

People who live through abandonment don’t always develop a fear of being abandoned. However, they may have some of the following common symptoms in adulthood.

Some common signs and symptoms of abandonment issues in an individual can look like: 

  • Depression
  • Disproportionate reactions to real or perceived abandonment
  • Difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships
  • Extreme jealousy or clingy behavior
  • Checking for reassurance
  • Needing validation
  • Difficulty being vulnerable
  • Difficulty having an independent sense of self
  • Oversharing
  • Pervasive fear/anxiety/worry tendencies that can manifest as being “controlling”
  • Trying to make a lot of friends in order to never be alone
  • Underestimating themselves
  • Pervasive insecurity

Signs of abandonment issues in adults are similar to those in children, but they can look more muted or hidden due to many adults engaging in “masking” behaviors; that is, minimizing the intensity of what they’re feeling and experiencing “just to get by.” 

Often, those with abandonment issues have either anxious or avoidant behaviors that can also manifest as attachment styles. Some other symptoms of abandonment issues can involve behaviors such as over-apologizing, perfectionistic tendencies, and bargaining behaviors.

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How Does a Person With Abandonment Issues Act?

How a person with abandonment issues acts is dependent upon their personality, their history, and their current environment. Along with the above symptoms, someone with abandonment issues will engage in repetitive behaviors of the above symptoms and will also have anxious rumination and worried thoughts that they experience frequently, if not daily, almost like a narrative script in their head. 

Other observable behaviors that people struggling with abandonment issues usually exhibit are:

  1. Looking for faults. When people with abandonment issues find somebody who might make a great partner, they begin to find faults with them. They look for the things that are wrong instead of what is right to avoid committing. Nobody has the chance to break up with them, because they leave first.
  2. Other people think that they’re withdrawn. People with abandonment issues are actually hard to know because they do not trust people and are afraid to let them get close. The result is that they can often feel lonely and isolated.
  3. Always being involved with a partner because they’re uncomfortable being alone. People with abandonment issues love the idea of being in love and they give a lot of themselves in a relationship, but will then feel that their partner is not appreciative of them.
  4. Finding themselves attracted to somebody during the chase. Once in the relationship, people with abandonment issues get bored easily. Individuals with abandonment issues withdraw emotionally, giving their partner reason to think they have done something wrong. 
  5. Wanting everything to be perfect to avoid rejection. Whether it is how the house is decorated, the clothing they wear, or what their body looks like, people with abandonment issues may need everything to be perfect. While they are busy perfecting everything, they are unhappy in the process.

Should You Date Someone With Abandonment Issues?

You can absolutely date someone who has issues with abandonment. It should definitely be something that’s discussed, and your partner should be able to hold themselves accountable for how their history affects them and their behavior, but as long as your partner is seeking professional help and understands their triggers for abandonment and how to cope with them, it should not cause any issues or pervasive problems within your romantic relationship. 

It would be helpful for you, if you choose to date someone with abandonment issues, to learn more about it and how it affects your partner. Learn more about their triggers, any trauma history, coping skills that are effective and helpful for them, and how you can continue to be a part of the solution. Though they are working to heal from their abandonment issues, healing and change is an ongoing process, so learning how to support them as they go through this journey can help them feel accepted and seen.

Is Having Abandonment Issues Toxic? Are Abandonment Issues a Red Flag?

Again, having abandonment issues is not an inherently toxic trait and shouldn’t be considered an immediate red flag. 

However, if a person is willfully ignorant to how their behavior and thought patterns are disruptive and destructive to their personal life, then it is certainly a negative sign or “red flag,” and it could be worth considering whether or not you should remain in the relationship. 

What makes any individual who suffers from abandonment issues “toxic” is their unwillingness to admit that they have distorted thought patterns and views of reality—ignoring how their behaviors can be disruptive or hurtful to others. When someone is unwilling to receive feedback or explore ways that their behaviors impact others, that is an unhealthy sign.

Are People With Abandonment Issues Possessive?

Again, the level of possessiveness shown by someone with abandonment issues depends on the person, their level of self-awareness, and how willing they are to learn coping mechanisms and effective ways to self-regulate when experiencing a significant abandonment stressor or trigger. 

People who have abandonment issues who demonstrate possessive traits usually do not have effective coping and emotion regulation skills, and as a result, are currently being governed by their emotions, impulses, and insecurities—they’re not rooted in healthy ways of thinking and are not thinking of ways that their behaviors are impacting others.

How to Overcome Abandonment Issues from Childhood—and How to Deal With Abandonment Issues in Adulthood

To overcome abandonment issues from childhood, a commitment to working through them coupled with the willingness to face the way they act and behave from these issues is needed. 

One of the best ways to overcome abandonment issues from your childhood is to seek professional counseling to discuss these issues. Keep in mind that abandonment issues involve deep feelings of being unlovable and unworthy, and most people require the support of a therapist to help them fully process things and heal.

As for practices you can do on your own, self-help, such as informing and educating yourself about abandonment issues, and mindfulness/self-awareness. 

When you have abandonment issues that are rooted in your childhood, they will have deep roots and often will cause you to have some very persistent, ingrained maladaptive behaviors and thought patterns. A great way to start overcoming these issues is to practice mental and emotional awareness. 

Notice what you’re thinking and experiencing at any given moment in time. What are your stressors and triggers? What makes these thoughts more intense in your mind? What helps reduce the intensity of these thoughts? Journaling can also help you create a mind map of these thought patterns and can help you gain insight.

Finally, being open and honest about your struggles with trusted individuals in your life is another great way to receive support as well as healthy, constructive feedback while also allowing you to hold yourself accountable.

If you notice patterns of abandonment sensitivity in your life, consider getting in touch with a mental health professional. 

Table of contents

What Are Abandonment Issues?

Why Do I Have Abandonment Issues? What Triggered My Abandonment Issues?

The Effects of Abandonment on Children

Is Abandonment a Form of Trauma?

Are Abandonment Issues an Insecurity?

Why Do I Have Abandonment Issues If I Was Never Abandoned?

What Do Abandonment Issues Look Like in a Woman?

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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  • Downey, C., & Crummy, A. (2022). The impact of childhood trauma on children’s wellbeing and adult behavior. European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 6(1), 100237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejtd.2021.100237

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  • Originally published on March 7, 2022

    Author: Lenora KM

    Reviewer: Emily Simonian, LMFT

  • Updated on February 21, 2024

    Author: Hannah DeWitt; Alexandra Cromer, LPC

    Reviewer: Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding information regarding triggers for abandonment issues, whether abandonment is a form of trauma or insecurity, what abandonment issues look like in women and adults vs. children, signs of abandonment issues, the impact of abandonment issues on children, what causes abandonment issues to develop in childhood aside from being abandoned, and what abandonment issues mean in a potential partner; article was clinically reviewed to double confirm accuracy and enhance value.

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