Fear of abandonment is a type of anxiety that some people experience when faced with the idea of losing someone they care about. Everyone deals with death or the end of relationships in their lifetime. Loss is a natural part of life.
However, people with abandonment issues live in fear of these losses. They may also exhibit behaviors that push people to leave so they’re never surprised by the loss.
Initial behaviors of abandonment fear are often not purposeful.
Over time, however, the reaction these behaviors get — plus the attention that comes with it — can become self-reinforcing. That can cause someone to repeat the behaviors in order to get the response again.
This behavior can have unhealthy consequences. Over time, it can ruin relationships. It can also prevent the development of healthy bonds.
The key to treating abandonment issues is to find psychological treatment or therapy.
Continue reading to find out how these fears develop and how they can be stopped.
People with abandonment fears exhibit many of the same behaviors, though some may be more prominent than others. These symptoms include:
- Cycling through relationships. Some may engage in numerous shallow relationships. They may fear intimacy and find a reason to leave a relationship before the other person can.
- Sabotaging relationships. Some may act irrationally to get out of relationships. For example, you may knowingly push away a partner so you won’t feel hurt if they leave.
- Clinging to unhealthy relationships. Some people with abandonment issues may stay in relationships despite a desire to leave. The fear of being alone is more powerful.
- Needing constant reassurance. Some may constantly seek out a friend or partner and demand emotional guarantees. They may regularly urge friends or partners to make broad statements, such as “I’ll always be here,” and then say they’re lying.
Kids with healthy emotional attachments to their parents often become upset when they’re left, even if only for a short time.
Some level of this reaction is natural. However, it may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition when it leads to:
- Separation anxiety. If a child becomes anxious about their parents going somewhere in advance, the child may be expressing abandonment fears.
- Panic. If a child begins to panic when they don’t see their parents, their overreaction may be a sign of an issue.
- A fear of being alone. Some children won’t sleep without their parents or even let them step out of the room.
Some abandonment issues and fears become invasive. They can prevent someone from leading a normal, healthy life.
A history of any of the following may increase the risk of a type of abandonment fear:
- Neglect. People who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned, especially during childhood, are more likely to develop this issue. Likewise, adults who were neglected as a child are more likely to repeat the behaviors with their own children.
- Stress. High levels of stress may make naturally occurring anxiety worse. This can worsen fears and lead to new anxieties.
- Traumatic events. Those who have experienced an injury or death or been a victim of a crime may be more likely to develop these issues.
Healthy human development requires knowing that physical and emotional needs are met. During childhood, this reassurance comes from parents. During adulthood, it can come from personal and romantic relationships.
Events can interrupt this assurance at any age. When this happens, abandonment fears may develop. These events may include:
- Death. Death is natural, but that doesn’t make it less traumatic. Losing a loved one unexpectedly can create an emotional void that can be filled by fear.
- Abuse. Physical and sexual abuse, along with other types of abuse, can create lingering mental health issues, including a fear of abandonment.
- Poverty. If basic needs aren’t met, this can lead to a scarcity mindset. This may lead to fears that emotional resources, such as love, attention, and friendship, are likewise limited.
- Relationship loss. Divorce, death, infidelity — they all happen. For some individuals, the end of a relationship can be too painful. It may lead to lingering fears.
Treatment for abandonment issues focuses on establishing healthy emotional boundaries. You need to build an arsenal of responses to deploy when you feel old thought patterns emerging again.
Primary treatments for abandonment issues include:
- Therapy. Seek out the help of a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. They can help you overcome fears of being abandoned. They’ll also work with you to understand where the fear originates and what you can do when you sense the fear rising.
- Self-care. People with abandonment issues may benefit from self-care. Making sure emotional needs are met is important for friendships and relationships. This way, you’re able to better provide for your partner, friend, or child.
Helping a loved one living with abandonment issues can be difficult. After all, if you bring up your concerns, their instinct may be to challenge you and your loyalty to them.
While people with abandonment fears differ, these techniques may help you care for someone who has a fear of abandonment:
Pause the conversation
Highly emotional conversations will inevitably become unproductive. When this happens, pause the conversation. Let them know you care but step away for a few hours.
Be supportive of both yourself and the person with abandonment fears. People with abandonment issues may struggle more with this, particularly if their conversation partner leaves without telling them where they’re going.
Let them know:
- where you’re going
- how long you’ll be away
- when you’ll return
When you return, begin the conversation from a less emotional place.
Support and validate their fears
Validation is an important part of trust in a relationship. When supporting a loved one with a fear of abandonment, validation means that you acknowledge their feelings without judgment. Such understanding of their fears is a key to maintaining communication.
Validating a loved one’s fears doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them. Instead, you’re supporting their feelings to further build on trust and compassion.
Consider this six-level approach Psychology Today identified to help you get started:
- Be present. Actively listen to your loved one’s concerns without multitasking.
- Reflect. Summarize your loved one’s feelings verbally in an authentic way so you can reach an understanding without judgment.
- Mind-reading. Sometimes it can be difficult for loved ones to describe their emotional states as fear. By listening to them, you can help them identify their emotions for deeper understanding. This level takes a lot of practice with being present and reflecting.
- Understand their history. This is an even deeper form of acknowledgment. You know your loved one’s fears and openly state that you understand how a certain situation might be triggering due to their past history of abandonment.
- “Normalize” their fears. Such normalization is done by acknowledging the fact that others with your loved one’s history could have fears of abandonment, so what they’re feeling is completely understandable.
- Radical genuineness. As the deepest level of validation, radical genuineness involves sharing your loved one’s fears as your own.
It’s just as important to prevent saying things that might invalidate your loved one’s fears. Avoid unhelpful phrases, such as:
- “It’s OK, just let it go.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “That didn’t really happen to you.”
- “Why are you making such a big deal out of nothing?”
- “Things could be a lot worse; you’re lucky.”
Don’t take the emotional bait
A person with a fear of abandonment may use facial expressions, ambiguous statements, or vague body language to draw attention. Don’t bite.
When they tell you nothing is wrong, or they don’t want to talk about it, take them at their word. Requesting that they open up can turn into a way to test you.
Tell them how these behaviors make you feel
There’s no harm in honesty. When you’re upset, clearly express what you mean and how their actions are making you feel. The honesty may be disarming enough that you can make progress.
Helping a child with abandonment issues
If you suspect your child has abandonment anxiety, it’s important to get them help as early as possible so they can develop secure relationships. Talk with your child’s doctor about your options.
These strategies may be helpful with children:
- Seek professional help. For some children, talking to a parent or teacher may be uncomfortable. A professional may be less threatening.
- Encourage kids to express their feelings. Children sometimes fear their emotions may upset their parents. Be a blank slate to your child’s feelings. Let them bring up everything they feel while you acknowledge it all.
- Offer validation. Instead of seeking a solution for their worries or fears, offer confirmation of their feelings. Tell them simply that it’s OK to feel how they do.
Treatment for this type of anxiety can be very successful. It requires commitment and self-care to feel more confident in relationships — but it can be done.
For many people with these issues, worries may linger. A therapist can teach you how to cope with these thoughts when they pop up.
They may also encourage you to return to therapy if the thoughts and anxieties become problematic again.
Many individuals with abandonment issues may not recognize how destructive their behaviors are. They may purposefully endanger relationships as a way of avoiding hurt.
These behaviors can lead to long-term relationship problems in personal and professional settings.
Treatment for abandonment issues focuses on helping people understand the underlying factors that lead to the behavior.
Treatment can also teach coping mechanisms to help manage these anxieties in the future. This can lead to normal, healthy relationships.