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Abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect Trauma

According to Darlene Lancer author of Codependency for Dummies, says a relationship can be a lonely place, and that can be confusing because we're not alone; we may even spend a lot of time with our partner. We may not recognize the signs of emotional abandonment. We may be unhappy, but can’t put our finger on what it is. People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. A loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, or illness can be felt as an emotional abandonment as well. But emotional abandonment has nothing to do with proximity: It can happen when the other person is lying right beside us, when we can’t connect, or when our emotional needs aren’t being met in our relationship. Studies show that as high as 40 percent of marrieds complain of feeling lonely sometimes or often.

In my own journey of healing from the abandonment wound I learned that abandonment trauma occurs when an individual experiences a significant loss or rejection, either physically or emotionally. This can happen through the loss of a loved one, neglect, parental separation, or emotional unavailability. The effects of abandonment trauma can include:

1. Attachment Issues: Abandonment can lead to insecure attachment styles, making it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships in adulthood.

2. Fear of Rejection: Individuals who have experienced abandonment may develop a fear of rejection, making it challenging to trust and connect with others.

3. Emotional Instability: Abandonment trauma can cause intense emotional ups and downs, feelings of emptiness, and difficulty managing emotions effectively.

4. Low Self-Esteem: The experience of abandonment can negatively impact self-worth and self-esteem, leading to self-doubt and a lack of self-belief.

5. Difficulty Trusting Others: Individuals with abandonment trauma may struggle to trust others, fearing they will be abandoned or rejected once again.

Emotional Needs

Darlene Lancer explains, that often we aren’t aware of our emotional needs; we just feel that something’s missing. We may feel needy, insecure, or lonely. It's important to distinguish social and emotional loneliness. Despite our social life, we can still miss emotional closeness with a significant other. We have many emotional needs in intimate relationships, the intensity of which will vary with our attachment style. Here are some of our emotional needs:

1. To be listened to and understood.

2. To be nurtured.

3. To be appreciated.

4. To be valued.

5. To be accepted.

6. Affection.

7. Love.

8. Companionship.

She explains that when there is high conflict, abuse, addiction, or infidelity in a relationship, these emotional needs often go unmet. Sometimes, infidelity is a symptom of emotional abandonment in a relationship, by one or both partners. Additionally, addiction may be used to avoid closeness: If one partner is addicted, the other may feel neglected because the addiction comes first and consumes the addict’s attention, preventing him or her from being present. Addiction can include a compulsive activity, such as workaholism or shopping. It might be that what's missing is intimacy, but we don't realize what that really means.

Causes of Emotional Abandonment

Even in healthy relationships, there are periods, days, and even moments of emotional abandonment that may be caused by:

  • Intentional withholding of communication or affection.

  • External stressors, including the demands of parenting.

  • Conflicting work schedules.

  • Lack of mutual interests and time spent together.

  • Preoccupation and self-centeredness.

  • Dysfunctional communication.

  • Unresolved resentment.

  • Fear of intimacy.

  • Illness.

When couples don’t share common interests or work/sleep schedules, one or both may feel abandoned. They have to make an extra effort to spend time talking about their experiences and intimate feelings with each other to keep the relationship fresh and alive.

More harmful are unhealthy communication patterns that may have developed, where one or both partners fail to share openly, listen with respect, or respond with interest to the other. When we feel ignored, or like our partner doesn’t understand or care about what we’re communicating, there’s a risk that eventually we stop talking to him or her. Walls begin to rise, and we can begin living emotionally separate lives. Signs are if we talk more to friends or relatives than to our partner, or when we are disinterested in sex or spending time together.

Darlene Lancer explains that resentment can easily develop in relationships, especially when hurt or anger isn’t expressed. As a result, we may pull away emotionally, put up walls, or push our partner away with criticism or undermining comments. Unexpressed hurt leads to more disappointment and resentment.

Denial or shame about our feelings and needs often stems from emotional abandonment in childhood and can cause communication and intimacy problems. Usually, this shame or fear isn't conscious. In counseling, couples are able to talk about their ambivalence, which allows them to grow closer. Sometimes, abandoning behavior occurs after a period of closeness or sex. One partner may physically withdraw or create distance by not talking, or even by talking too much. Either way, it may leave the other person feeling alone and abandoned.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN):

Childhood Emotional Neglect is the failure of caregivers to respond adequately to a child's emotional and psychological needs, leaving the child feeling ignored, unimportant, or invalidated. The effects of CEN can include:

  1. Difficulty Identifying Emotions: Individuals who experience CEN often struggle to identify and articulate their emotions, leading to emotional numbness or confusion.

  2. Self-Doubt and Self-Blame: CEN can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-blame, and a persistent belief that one's needs and feelings are not important.

  3. Relationship Challenges: Individuals who grew up with CEN may have difficulty forming and maintaining intimate relationships due to a lack of emotional awareness and expression.

  4. Perfectionism: CEN survivors may develop perfectionistic tendencies, constantly seeking validation and approval from others to fill the emotional void from their childhood.

  5. Difficulty Connecting with Others: CEN can lead to a persistent feeling of disconnection from others, even in social situations, causing a sense of isolation and loneliness.

In Childhood

Darlene Lancer says good parenting provides children with the security of knowing that they're loved and accepted for their unique self, by both parents and that both parents want a relationship with them. Parental failure to validate these feelings and needs is a trauma of emotional abandonment. We may not realize that we were emotionally abandoned as a child, particularly if our parents met our physical and material needs. However, clients often tell me that they felt their family didn't understand them, that they felt different from the rest of the family or like an outsider. What is being described is the trauma of invisibility. This can also emerge when parent-child interactions revolve around the parent: The child is serving the parent's needs, instead of the other way around, which is a form of abandonment. Even if a parent says, "I love you," the child may still not feel close or accepted for who he or she is as a separate individual, apart from the parent. Love may be conditional and doled out only when a child complies or performs to a parent's liking.

She goes on to say that emotional abandonment in childhood can happen in infancy if the primary caretaker, usually the mother, is unable to be present emotionally. This is often because she’s replicating her own childhood experience, but it may also be due to stress or depression. It’s important for a baby’s emotional development that the mother attunes to her child’s feelings and needs and reflects them back. She may be preoccupied, cold, or unable to empathize with her baby's success or upsetting emotions. The baby then ends up feeling alone, rejected, or deflated. The reverse is also true: Sometimes a parent gives a child a lot of attention but isn’t attuned to what the child actually needs.

Abandonment can happen later, too, when children are criticized, controlled, unfairly treated, or otherwise given a message that they or their experience is unimportant or wrong. Children are vulnerable, and it doesn’t take much to make a child feel hurt and abandoned. Abandonment can also occur when a parent confides in a child or expects him or her to take on age-inappropriate responsibilities. At those moments, the children must suppress their feelings and needs to meet the needs of the adult.

Darlene Lancer ensures a few incidents of emotional abandonment don’t harm children’s healthy development, but when they’re common, they can cause internalized shame that leads to intimacy issues and codependency in adult relationships. As adults, we may be emotionally unavailable — or attracted to someone who is. We risk continuing a cycle of abandonment that replicates our abandoning relationships and we can be easily triggered to feel abandoned.

During my own journey of healing unresolved emotional pain related to the abandonment wound I learned healing and recovery involve:

  1. Therapy and Counseling: Engage in therapy with a mental health professional specializing in trauma and emotional healing, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), EMDR, or Schema Therapy.

  2. Self-Compassion and Self-Care: Practice self-compassion and self-care to nurture yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally. Be patient and gentle with yourself throughout the healing process.

  3. Mindfulness and Emotional Awareness: Learn mindfulness techniques to become more aware of your emotions and reactions. Mindfulness can help in recognizing and managing emotional responses.

  4. Building Healthy Relationships: Work on building healthy, supportive relationships with individuals who respect and validate your emotions and needs.

  5. Journaling and Self-Reflection: Regularly journal your thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Reflect on your past and present to gain insights into your feelings and patterns of behavior.

Seeking professional help and taking proactive steps to understand, address, and heal from abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma can lead to a healthier, more fulfilling life.


© Darlene Lancer, 2012, 2014.

1Lars Tornstam. “Loneliness in marriage,” Journal of Relationships, 9, no. 2 (May, 1992): 197-217.

Need Help Developing A Plan For Self-Care

Do you want help developing a self-care plan that works for your busy schedule? Do you want accountability in implementing a self-care plan? If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain optimal mental and emotional health, consider reaching out to Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. We are a Metro Atlanta, Conyers Georgia area. We are a coaching and counseling practice with empathetic, skilled counselors and recovery coaches who can help you set goals, develop a self-care routine, and move forward to build a more fulfilling life. Our team would be happy to work with you either just for a couple of sessions to develop and implement a Self-care plan or longer term to work toward overall better mental health within our membership site or other programs.

Dr. Nikki LeToya White
Dr. Nikki LeToya White

About The Author:

Dr. Nikki LeToya White MSEd-TL, Ph.D. RHN is the founder, director, and full-time board-certified trauma-informed nutritionist, folk herbalist, and wellness consultant at Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. She created Spiced Life Conversation, LLC

Art Wellness Studio and Botanica to provide the Metro Atlanta area with counseling and coaching services where clients are carefully matched with the right program for healing abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma that cause codependency, emotional eating, financial stress, and imposter syndrome as it relates to fear of success and being abandon. We help you begin your emotional healing journey with ease. Recently, we have expanded to include an online membership site so we now provide support to people living all over the world. All of our recovery coaches provide at least one evidence-based treatment to assist in your recovery. Dr. White is a big proponent of self-care and helping people live a fulfilling life! She has been in full remission with both codependency and emotional binge eating disorder since 2016. In living a life in recovery from sugar addiction. Loving her low-sugar balance lifestyle.

Best Regards

Dr. Nikki LeToya White

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