How To Overcome Abandonment Issues From Childhood

Few things have the power to hold you back in your adult life as much as abandonment. Legions of people are wondering how to overcome abandonment issues from childhood.

Sadly, there are many different ways that parents can fail their children. Thanks to research and awareness, there are many resources available to people who grew up with any form of abuse from their parents. But there are two other types of parental failure that are far less noticed or discussed: parental abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Children are born literally “pre-wired” with some very specific emotional needs. Thanks to loads of scientific research, we now know, without a doubt, that in order to grow and thrive as an adult, children must feel loved and emotionally attached to their parents.

Childrens’ emotional needs are, in fact, so crucial that even well-meaning, physically present parents can inadvertently harm their children by not responding enough to their children’s emotions. This subtle parental failure happens far and wide, and I have given it the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. 

Though CEN happens under the radar in most emotionally neglectful homes, it nevertheless leaves lasting effects upon the child: disconnection, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of being empty and alone, among others.

If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.

Parental Abandonment

Parents leave their children in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Whether your parent left you because of divorce, death, or choice, the reason matters far less than the fact that he or she left you.

It is very difficult for a child’s brain to absorb the enormity of abandonment. Children often suffer problems with anger or grief after the loss of a parent. Most children have difficulty believing that it is permanent, even if their parent has passed away. But if your parent walked away by choice, you will also likely struggle with your very natural question of, “Why?”

The 3 Main Issues Of The Abandoned Child

  1. Trusting others: When your parent abandons you, he or she is violating your most basic human need, which is to have parents who value and enjoy you. If the one who is meant to love and care for you the most in this world leaves you, it becomes very difficult to believe that anyone and everyone who becomes important to you will not do the same. You may end up living your life constantly on-guard for the possibility of being abandoned again. It’s hard to trust that your partner, friend or loved one has your best interests in mind. This holds you back from forming rich, deep, trusting relationships.
  2. Guilt and shame: All abandoned children are deeply mystified about why their parents left them. Many struggle with the fact that there is no good explanation because, let’s face it, apart from death there is no good reason for a parent to leave a child. In the absence of a logical explanation, the child naturally tends to blame herself. This sets up a pattern of feeling deeply responsible for her parent’s choice to leave her. The abandoned child often grows up to struggle with guilt and shame.
  3. Self-worth: “How could my own parent leave me?” the abandoned child wonders. Being left by the one who brought you into this world naturally makes you wonder what is wrong with you. The abandoned child is set up to never feel good enough. Deeply, painfully, he feels unworthy of true love and commitment.

Many thousands of children grow up with parents who are physically present, yet emotionally absent — Childhood Emotional Neglect. These children grow up to feel less important than others, and deeply alone.

Many thousands more children experience the deep trauma of a parent physically abandoning them. If you had this experience as a child, you have probably grown up to struggle with trust, shame, and low self-worth.

Even if you are physically abandoned, if you have one parent who remains present and is emotionally attuned to you, this can greatly soften the impact of the other parent’s abandonment.

Emotional attunement from a parent is the balm that soothes all childhood hurts, and the antidote that prevents depression, anxiety, and low self-worth. If you grew up in a family that offered a shortage of this balm, you may be struggling to this day.

How To Overcome Abandonment Issues From Childhood

Whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, abandonment, or a combination of the two, it’s not too late for you to repair those childhood hurts. Now, as an adult, you can make up for what you didn’t get in childhood.

By beginning to tune in to yourself to pay attention to your feelings, by making a concerted effort to take care of your own needs, and by learning emotion management skills, you can begin the process of accepting your own true value as a human being.

If your parents failed you emotionally or abandoned you, you can become your own present, loving and attuned parent now.

It’s never too late to begin to accept that you matter.

To learn much more about the emotional needs of children, the effects of having emotionally or physically absent parents and how you can heal yourself, see Running On Empty or Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!


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Leigh - July 1, 2018 Reply

I’m just now starting to emotionaly connect with my eight year old son and I’m 67. Yes I had my own children late to partially help me understand unconditional love. I now feel it but still don’t “share” it with my children. Unfortunately my ex is trying to keep them away from me which has turned me to try and understand what went wrong. I’m now just realizing the obvious which is often right under our nose but we don’t see it. I call it common sense we don’t have. However as I read your literature on CEN it all starts to make sense. Then I have to keep from beating myself up over it because I “know” I’m smarter than that. But in now amazes me how I missed the signs of CEN myself. It is now so obvious but I missed it. Just thanks for making me see it when I took the test I answered yes on nearly all questions. In fact at times I would have had 100% yes answers. SCAREY. I must say that my work and present awareness I’m sure will be a life saver. Yes I have even contemplated suicide in the past but would never do that to my kids. Now I realize how much I can do for them by making sure they don’t fall into the CEN trap. However they also have a narcissistic mother but she goes the opposite direction by allowing them to completely run their life on emotion. Any thoughts on that Jonice? Thanks in advance for any help you can provide. I am working on my CEN but don’t know how to deal with her impact. As I said before she is trying to keep the kids from me in a very “controlling” manner. However she passes all the blame on to me. In fact she is into the realm of serious child alienation which is even worse in my mind than CEN. I would welcome any advise on dealing with this strange combination of “disorders”. In fact I would love a “one on one” with you, Jonice, if that is possible. Thanks again. Leigh Summer

Suntime11 - May 28, 2018 Reply

Thank you, Dr. Webb!! Reading your blog posts always makes me feel better. Your abandonment post really hit home for me, as I felt abandoned by my mother when my younger sister came along, and I could do no right. As an adult I’ve been terrified of people I love leaving me or becoming bored of me if they find out the “real” me, so I’ve always run away before they had a chance to do so. My mom had other issues, probably a narcissist/sociopath, but that’s another story.

Kate, I wanted to respond to your comment, as I was struck by the familiarity of your confusion of what a healthy relationship looks like. First, I’m sorry that your childhood was so bland and crummy- you deserve better, and the fact that you’re putting effort into being the best parent you can be is the best thing you can do. I wanted to share with you a technique that really worked for me when healing from my “backwardsness”- Emotional Freedom Technique. You can google it- you tap on acupuncture points with your fingers, and bad feelings clear. I also found it helpful to talk to a therapist, and I often found myself asking, what do I do to have a healthy relationship? What does that even look like? So keep up the good work and keep trying, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Do you have fun with your kids? Play with them, take them to fun places? Btw overnight camping with kids you’ve never met before is pretty standard, and usually results in fun times and new friends. Best wishes to you and your family 🙂

    Jonice - May 28, 2018 Reply

    Thanks for your helpful advice for Kate, Suntime11!

    Katie - May 29, 2018 Reply

    Suntime11 , thank you for taking the time and reading my comment and replying. Your comment strike me as well. I have no friends and never made an effort to seek one, for the exact same reason that you mentioned above! I always thought that I am weird and different and it will make people “puke” if they knew the real me. At family gathering I joke a lot and say silly stuff so I can hide the real me. My kids started to see the pattern and ask so many questions about my Behavior in “public”. But I have not told them the truth since my daughter is 14 and she has her own hormonal issues and my son has anxiety and just make things worse. Beside, I am not looking for their “empathy”. This is my problem not theirs. My husband knows 50% of things but since he comes from a nurturing family he thinks I am making this up. Playing with my kids is great, spending time with them is wonderful. But when I see them having fun with their fri nds and socialize (something that I never got to do) is very “rewording” in a sense. I listen not to thbe conversation, but how they interact and have fun. How they make conversation and maintaining it. I can’t describe it, but it does help me emotionally to see them happy. It makes me extremely happy. Because I have broke the cycle. My kids did and still do help me, but I feel guilty because being a parent should be the other way around. I can’t explain, it is almost a guilty feeling. I have tried to seek therapy but not too many therapist know about CEN and how to deal with it. I read a lot and I just started to take care of myself. Every day a small thing. Doing my nails, taking a bath, reading, relaxing, napping. And I started to tell myself every morning that “you matter, your existence is of value”. It is hard to do it in front of a mirror, to look at myself in the mirror and saying these things. So I haven’t tried it again. I hope to get there sometime. Btw, I am 39 and soon to be 40. I haven’t seen my father in 3 years and my relationship with my mom is not great. We see each other, but it feels weird. I don’t feel close to her, I don’t know what to talk about and we just keep it “whatever” and that’s it. We see each other at my siblings home mostly once a month or once every 2 months. I don’t miss my parents. As a matter of fact, without their presence I can breath. I know I am hurt, but for some reason I don’t remember much. Sometimes I do believe my husband that maybe my brain is playing a trick on me. As if this entire life of mine was a movie, once of those movies that you don’t recall much, but th feeling stays. I am going to google and practice. I want to be normal (whatever that means and if it does exist).

kate - May 24, 2018 Reply

Dr. Webb,
I’ve read your book and keep it close.
My background: i was raised with a set of parents that were both narcissist (father severe, mother moderate) i was deprived emotionally from being a child. At a very young age, i’ve learn to survive. I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids, go to my classmate house, etc. i was in 24hr/day “supervised” by either mom or dad and i had to go by their rules. I was belittered, put down and i was told on a daily basis that i am worthless and without my parents i would be nobody. I was trained by my mom to steal my own clothes from stores and drop out of high school. I was sexually abused by my mom’s brother. Physically abused by both parents and severely deprived from being a child.
I tried to commit suicide at the age of 17 (now 39 – clearly survived) . I wanted to die, because i felt like a burden on the family and my parents and wanted them to have a good life. I always thought that i was a problem/burden on everyone. I was never cared for even when i was physically sick. I clearly remember my ear infections where i use to warm up a towel and put it on my ear at night so i could ease the pain (around 5 or 6 years of age). I had severe allergy reaction to a food and suffered from hives for a week and finally an extended family member gave me pills. Long story short, i did not quit school and went to university and did not steal!. Got married to a wonderful husband and i have 2 children. The little child that never got to grow up in me, got a chance to experience life with my kids. I am on medication so i can function. But the waive hit me from time to time. It storms out. My kids are emotionally extremely spoiled. I am doing exact the opposite of what my parents did. It takes time, what i do is try to analyze the situation and think of how my parents would react and do the exact opposite. I do take my kids to a psychologist, not because there is something wrong with them, there is clearly something wrong with me and i don’t know any better. I almost need a coach on how to parent.
here is the tough question:
my 12 year old son is suffering from anxiety. Every child’s emotional need is different and coming from a battered childhood, i can’t read or understand his emotional needs. I am there for him the way i “think” is the right way, but i don’t know. He is sensitive, and understands more than he should be. He worries about money, time, and wants to make sure that he pleases everyone. I keep telling him that is my job that he needs to enjoy his childhood and make memories. He doesn’t hang out with his friends, even if i “force” him. I want him to explore the world around him, just have fun and be a kid. Our therapist wants me to push him (cold turkey) in the world. Sign him up in over night camps and other camps where he doesn’t know anyone. I am afraid that this method will actually hurt him more if the group that he will be in is not a good one. I am desperate to help him. I talk to him, we spend so much time together, but i want him to not worry and enjoy his life. How do i help my son to over come his anxiety? how do i help him? I am afraid that he will have a void in him, that emptiness later on. I can see it happening if he continues the way he is. How do i avoid the running on empty for my child?

Noks - May 22, 2018 Reply

I Love your work. I read running in empty borrowed. I’d like to own it now.

    Jonice - May 22, 2018 Reply

    Dear Noks, I’m glad you liked it. You can find Running On Empty everywhere.

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