How to Know if You Were Emotionally Abandoned as a Child: 4 Signs

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Abandonment issues lurk under the surface of your life, often raising their ugly heads when you least expect them. Abandonment issues are caused by a painful experience of being left by someone important, like a parent, spouse, sibling or very close friend.

Any single one of these three key factors can make you more vulnerable to developing abandonment issues:

  1. The abandonment is sudden or unexpected
  2. Your abandonment experience happens in your childhood
  3. You have a general tendency to downplay or ignore your own feelings

All abandonment is not the same. There are two different types.

What is Physical Abandonment?

Most people think of abandonment as a physical experience. In other words, when a child is abandoned, it means that his parents physically left him. Many children have this painful event happen when a parent dies or leaves them for another reason. Adults can be physically abandoned by their spouse leaving them, or by another important person in their lives dying or moving away.

What is Emotional Abandonment?

Emotional abandonment is far less obvious, yet equally painful. Emotional abandonment happens when an important person who you believe cares about you and loves you, seems to stop caring about and loving you.

Abandonment Issues Are A Coping Response

The experience of being abandoned, either physically or emotionally, prompts a very predictable response in your human brain. Your brain automatically goes into high alert, becoming hyper-vigilant for any whiff of anything that could lead you to be hurt by another abandonment.

If you do not acknowledge and work through how you feel about the abandonment experience, your brain’s hypervigilance becomes more intense and continues longer. Over a much longer time than necessary, you may search for rejections or potential abandonments everywhere, and your brain may continually hold you back from taking healthy emotional risks in your life. This is the very definition of “abandonment issues.”

4 Signs You Have Abandonment Issues

  • A fear of initiating plans with people – This likely applies not only to new friends and acquaintances. You may have the same fear about suggesting plans with those you’re close to.
  • A feeling of hurt and/or anger when someone fails you, even in a small, explainable way – You may experience everyday failures of the everyday people in your life especially acutely. It’s hard for you to take in the other person’s circumstances as an explanation. Instead, you feel it personally and deeply.
  • You feel safer keeping people at a distance – Depending on others emotionally is scary, so you prefer to keep your relationships feeling safe. You may be great at taking care of others emotionally, but you’re afraid to let others take care of you.
  • You tend to downplay the importance of the people in your life – You may find yourself at times pretending that you care less than you do about certain people and what they do. “I don’t care if you’re there or not,” “Either way, it’s good with me,” “You can do whatever you want and it won’t matter to me,” are things you may hear yourself saying.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in Abandonment Issues

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you. When you grow up this way, you receive a powerful, unspoken message throughout your childhood that your emotions do not matter.

Being raised to ignore your feelings sets you up to downplay your emotional reactions to all of the things that happen throughout your entire life, and that includes your abandonment experience.

Unfortunately, ignoring and downplaying your feelings about the abandonment prevents you from being able to work through them in a healthy way. All that old hurt, sadness, anger and fear stays right there with you, keeping your brain in high alert, and holding you back from new relationships and experiences. All of this may happen completely outside of your awareness.

What To Do if You See These Signs in Yourself

  1. Become aware of your abandonment fear – Accepting your sensitivity to abandonment, and the event that originally caused it, is an important key. Once you see your fear and what caused it, you can begin to take control of it.
  2. Become aware of the Emotional Neglect in Your Childhood – Just as Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) sets you up to be vulnerable to abandonment issues, healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect will help you resolve them. Learning to pay attention to your own feelings, and how to value and use them (all part of recovery from CEN) will not only go far toward solving your abandonment issues but will make you stronger in many other areas of your life too.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is often subtle and invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more about CEN and how to heal it, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal yourself see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to heal CEN in your relationships and as a parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.


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Katarina - March 6, 2020 Reply

Thanks for this amazing information- I think I have finally found what has been ‘wrong’ with me all my life ie CEN and also possibly abandonment.

My teenage daughter has been severely ill for years now, fearful, depressed and withdrawn from life. While I have possibly passed some CEN onto her I wonder if the years in which she was forced (by the Family Court) to spend regular time with her father was interpreted as emotional and physical abandonment? She (and her brother) would return home after weekend or longer visits and describe their exhaustion at pretending that they were happy and ok for the entire visit, and my daughter would become extremely distressed before each visit. Even though she begged to stay home I had to tell her that I could do nothing to stop the visits.

    Jonice - March 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Katarina, this sounds like a painful situation for all. Perhaps you could ask your daughter exactly what went on during those visits and why they were so exhausting if you haven’t already done so.

Kaylie - August 18, 2019 Reply

It’s helpful to read what other people write here. I don’t have many memories of childhood at all and am wondering if others are having that. My therapist suspects infant neglect, but of course, this can’t be confirmed if one doesn’t remember. All I have to go on is that my aunt remember’s occasionally that my mom would just spank me when I would cry.

I have been suicidal for years. My brother and my cousin committed suicide. I have found over the years that therapists are often not well-equipped to deal with those feelings, often simply having me sign a contract, and telling me that suicide is not the answer. I suspect often that therapists are busy trying to protect themselves and to control the situation and forget that even if I stay alive, the deep sadness and sense of worthlessness doesn’t change. It hasn’t even with years of therapy. Hoping I can at least find a community where others might feel similar.

    Jonice - August 19, 2019 Reply

    Dear Kaylie, I think you would benefit from seeing a trauma specialist. Many therapists are trained in it, and I hope you will find a good one. You deserve to be understood, guided and supported through the process of healing your childhood trauma. All my best wishes to you.

Tim S - March 13, 2019 Reply

The abandonment side of things is a really big deal for me. One of the few questions I answer “no” to on the CEN test is the one about whether I take pride in my Independence. I don’t take pride in it for the very simple reason that my options are 1) be independent or 2) die. Independence was a matter of survival in the emotional desert I grew up in, and like most children, I learned that lesson very well.

There were a couple experiences that I remember that felt like significant abandonment, and I know that I shut down and withdrew from my family and parents to a greater or lesser extent each time. My mother (who has changed greatly for the better over the last number of years) once mentioned a time when I pushed both her and my father away, and I suspect it was in response to one of those abandonment experiences (presumably the second one, which was around age 6). The really sad part is that I was an incredibly honest child, and the only thing that needed to happen to completely transform everything was for somebody to pull me aside, ask me what was wrong, and not settle for the initial “nothing” response that I believed to be expected. I don’t recall ever getting pulled aside and asked if everything was okay, much less actually being pressed on the issue.

Part of the irony is that my parents essentially started treating me as an adult while I was still quite young. The way they treat me now is essentially the same as the way they treated me then, but as an adult now I’m really appreciative of the fact that they will respect my decisions without pushing back on them. As a child, that lack of pushback was the ultimate expression of abandonment, and now as an adult it’s experienced as the very positive trait of being able to let go instead of attempting to live vicariously through me.

There is a time and a place for parents to begin letting go and a time and a place for them to finish that process. In neither case has the time or place arrived while the child isn’t even halfway to being a teen yet. Someday, I’ll get to a point where the trauma of it loses the last of its grip on me, but I’m not there yet. I’ve been seeing some really significant progress lately, and that’s always an encouraging thing to see.

    Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tim, you are so right that there is a time for parents to let go but the timing must be right. I’m glad you are progressing in your healing. Keep it up!

Dorothy - March 11, 2019 Reply

I am 60 now. When in my teens I was made to be care giver to an emotional disturbed sister. No one gave a thought to what would become of me. Recognizing the C.E.N. I suffer from now is so very painful

    Jonice - March 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Dorothy, I know it’s painful to realize but the positive side is that you can heal it. And you’ve already taken he first step which is becoming aware.

Sandra - March 11, 2019 Reply

Is it possible to feel this abandonment at age 50. i was very ill at age 4 and in hospital for 6 weeks and almost died

    Jonice - March 11, 2019 Reply

    Yes, it certainly is possible, Sandra.

Tim Robbins - March 11, 2019 Reply

I’ve been reading your posts and website for a few months and find so much I suspect might be true of me too.

Would the following experiences cause a baby and young child to feel abandoned or be a cause of emotional neglect?

I was adopted age 6 months. For the first 6 months I was cared for by my biological mother in a residential mother and baby unit, and then put into a children’s home to await adoption. Would a young baby be affected?

I started having surgeries when I was 3 years old (I continued to have surgeries until I was 16). In those days parents weren’t allowed to stay with their children in hospital, so each time I was left behind, although my adoptive parents were allowed to visit. My adoptive parents weren’t allowed to be with me when I was prepared for and taken to the operating theatre, or when I had other painful and unpleasant medical treatments.

    Jonice - March 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tim, yes babies do experience abandonment and are deeply affected by it. Whether those incidents resulted in emotional neglect depends on how the adults around you handled the challenges in your life. Did they explain what was happening, pay attention to your feelings around all of this? How well they did all of that would have been very important.

      Tim Robbins - March 12, 2019 Reply

      Thank you Jonice. My adoptive parents were caring, but emotionally distant and ultra practical. They absolutely bought into everything the doctors said and did. I had no knowledge or say in any of it. As a teenager I once woke up from surgery to discover my genitals had been cut in half. It was a planned surgical procedure but I wasn’t told. It’s so hard to accept, to believe my traits are caused by CEN, but there seems just too much coincidence to discount it. The slow realisation makes my blood run cold. Thank you for the insights.

        Jonice - March 12, 2019 Reply

        I’m sorry that happened to you. Just keep in mind that you can heal your CEN. It’s important!

Pam Whalen - March 11, 2019 Reply

I am learning so much about myself, this is painful but is explaining so much.

I did not believe this article was for me but I clicked it anyway.
Oh my, I may have had abandonment issues all my life.

Hypervigilance, trusting no one with anything, anger at people’s failure to do what is obviously correct, not having a “my person” or wanting one, are all me.

    Jonice - March 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Pam, it’s important to confirm this by trying to identify how abandonment might have happened to you. That’s your next step. Please see a therapist for help if needed.

Jeni - March 11, 2019 Reply

I have read so many of your articles, but I’ve never heard you express CEN like this before. I am 50 years old and remember so many times growing up of the feelings of emotional abandonment and like the “rug was pulled out from under me”. I have gone through many years of therapy and I am so grateful to have been recovering from CEN. There have been a couple of times that I was told, not least of which was from my sister, “At least she didn’t beat you!” My sister had my mom and neither of them knew how to talk to me. My 2 brothers had my dad. For awhile I did have my dad, but my mom was jealous, so he chose her. There is strong religion in my family that I didn’t resonate with and eventually left altogether. There is also mental illness from both sides of my family and I was clinically depressed from a very young age. My brain did protect me for many years. When I reached 40 I had so much anger, but I did go back to therapy and was fortunate to have a wonderful therapist who helped me through so much pain. I am, thankfully, on the other end of that and have found healing in many new ways. I do like reading your articles because they are cathartic for me and it makes me feel like someone understands what I went through. There are many years I feel I lost in my childhood and early adulthood. That make me sad. CEN is the invisible virus in our human race. Thank you for naming it and sharing. I see my healing taking place on a regular basis. Can our brain learn new behaviors with emotions? Sometimes it does seem like I can feel healing taking place when I learn how to accept new manifestations.

    Jonice - March 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jeni, you sound like someone who is on the path of CEN recovery. As you describe your life, your healing progress comes through. Yes your brain can learn new behaviors with emotions. Definitely. I’m not surprised you can feel it healing as you change. Keep it up.

Susan - March 11, 2019 Reply

The signs really resonated with me, especially “A feeling of hurt and/or anger when someone fails you, even in a small, explainable way” – tonight my spouse again chose not to wear his hearing aids when we had dinner together, and decided to read a newsletter that had come in a few days ago instead of talking. I’ve struggled throughout our 11-year marriage with his decision not to be intimate with me (not revealed until after the wedding), which seems to magnify other “slights.”

    Jonice - March 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Susan, the only thing I can say to this is please speak up. People will fail you as much as you allow them, and marriage requires constant communication of your wishes and needs.

Catherine - March 10, 2019 Reply

This is so true, it’s put another missing piece in understanding myself.

Especially this bit:

“Your brain automatically goes into high alert, becoming hyper-vigilant for any whiff of anything that could lead you to be hurt by another abandonment. Over a much longer time than necessary, you may search for rejections or potential abandonments everywhere.”

I have to try hard not to get into the pattern of rejecting people before they reject me, I did that for years and still do sometimes…

    Jonice - March 10, 2019 Reply

    Dear Catherine, your brain is trying to protect you but you’re in the process of helping your brain realize that its “protection” is harming you. Keep up the good work of changing it.

Louisa - March 10, 2019 Reply

I was abandoned repeatedly when I was around the age of seven. First, my beloved grandmother died unexpectedly at age 52 after surgery. Then my aunts (probably because of their own pain and shock) who had previously adored me and made me feel precious, ignored me or pushed me away, and finally ridiculed and scolded me constantly.
I was in a small school with 4 girls in my grade. Two of them were very close to each other, so me and the other girl naturally became fast friends. She was a lovely girl, and coincidentally had the same last name as me. And then she moved.
I had a teacher whom I loved more than my own mother (I think!) and she left suddenly in the middle of the year for personal reasons.
At home, I was the oldest and had five younger brothers by the time I was seven. They always stuck together and I fought with them a lot. My parents never did anything about it. Always, always I should be helping my mother, even while the boys played. I soon found my escape in books. I read voraciously until sometime after I married.
My parents were both the oldest child in their respective families and came from large families. So there were a lot of weddings while I was a child. Weddings in my culture are very, very special but only the children who are invited are allowed to go, and they are paired with another child of the same gender and close in age. Well, I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and as luck would have it, I was the only girl for some time. And I never got invited to weddings while my brothers got to go frequently. I was in one when I was 5, and the next was when I was 15, while the boys each had half a dozen or so turns in childhood.
Sometime along the line, I got myself three imaginary older sisters who loved me and spoiled me SO MUCH!
We lived on the edge of our close-knit family/community, so while I did have other friends, they went to different schools.
As I got older, I longed for someone to love ME best, such as a boyfriend and then husband. That didn’t turn out well either–boys were not interested in me but only ridiculed me. I had a reputation–rebellious, lazy, disrespectful to parents, show off , hard-hearted etc.
I had TERRIBLE acne and my parents did take me to the doctor, but the stuff didn’t help very much, so I was very self-conscious.
I married the first man who would have me, mainly to escape from home, and we lived happily ever after NOT!
I don’t even know why I’m having this pity party, but something in your letter triggered something, I guess.
I’m 47 now and still struggling with relationships–with my husband and children. I don’t feel like I’m a terrible person, but I feel trapped by my past and much as I’d like to shake it off, I can’t seem to do it. Is there a way out of this deep rut of despair?

    Jonice - March 10, 2019 Reply

    Dear Louisa, I am sorry you grew up so very overlooked and neglected. I hope you will choose a therapist near you from the Find A CEN Therapist List on this site. And also please read my book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. I think it will help you understand yourself.

Ava - March 10, 2019 Reply

Thank you for drawing attention to this, Dr. Webb. I didn’t know I even had abandonment issues, but I related to all four signs. This one surprised me: “A feeling of hurt and/or anger when someone fails you, even in a small, explainable way.” I have a lot of anger and have gotten so upset with people, but I never tell them. I keep all that to myself. I never connected my feelings to abandonment issues. I don’t know if I fully trust my “friends” because most times they are not there for me. If I finally decide to share something important to me, the reaction I receive is of not really hearing or caring. They want to go back to their topic. I also have a “friend” who will never commit to an invite until the last minute, just in case she gets something better. All that makes me internally angry. I also know why I never shared my hurts with my parents. I must have instinctively known when I was younger that they would not be there for me. This article was very enlightening!

    Jonice - March 10, 2019 Reply

    Dear Ava, realizing you have abandonment issues can be key to healing this. You may have drawn self-focused people into your life, or you may be expecting to be treated as if you don’t matter. We all tend to get what we expect out of other people. Please take this on and try to work through it.

Randy Seabrook - March 10, 2019 Reply

seabrooklr9@aol.comOMG! As I was reading this I just realized why I don’t have any close friends. My Mother did not let me have any friends. She said I didn’t need them because they only caused trouble. They could not come over to our house and I couldn’t go anywhere period. I was always embarrassed because everyone knew that I couldn’t go anywhere so they all stopped inviting me to anything. My only friends were my sister, who was 5 yrs younger than me, and my dog. As an adult, I tried to make friends but they would all eventually drift away. I always blamed them, saying that they were just using me and dudnt really like me. But now I realize that I was keeping them at arms length. I would always cancel plans to go out with some excuse. I was terrified that they would find out how lame I was so I abandoned them before they could do it to me!

    Jonice - March 10, 2019 Reply

    Dear Randy, you have been simply following the life plan that your mother set up for you (perhaps unintentionally). But you need friends, as they will enrich your life and make you stronger. I hope you’ll work through this. I’m sure you can.

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