Psychological Effects of Child Abandonment

There are two different, though equally devastating, ways a child can be abandoned - physically and emotionally. Physical abandonment occurs when one or more of the child's primary caregivers disappears from the child's life. This may happen due to death or divorce. Sometimes parents walk away because they can't handle the responsibility and emotional strain of caring for a young child. Emotional abandonment occurs when the caregiver is present but completely emotionally unavailable. Causes of emotional abandonment include mental illness, substance abuse, and the caregivers selfishly deciding to put their needs before the needs of the child. Abandonment in any form can lead to serious psychological problems.

One common effect of childhood abandonment is low self-esteem. The child may believe that she was abandoned because she did something wrong or because she simply wasn't good enough to live up to her parents' standards. The child with low self-esteem often tries to be extra well behaved. She may become a perfectionist or seek to validate her self-worth with achievements. If she fails to reach her often unrealistic goals, she may become very depressed or even suicidal. This child is often easy prey for pedophiles and other abusers because she will do almost anything to please the people who are important to her.

Children who are abandoned may also develop attachment disorders. These may be more likely to develop if the child was abandoned by both parents at a very young age. Because he was prevented from attaching to his primary caregivers, he does not know how to connect with anyone else. This child is likely to be withdrawn and isolated. He often does not trust others. He may keep a very close eye on the activity going on around him, but he is unlikely to engage or try to join in. When a child with attachment problems is upset, he will not seek comfort from others, nor will he accept comfort if it is offered. The perpetual outcast and loner, this child may grow up unable to empathize with others.

A third reaction to abandonment is anxiety. Like the child with an attachment disorder, the anxious child does not trust, however the anxious child clings to others and lives in dread of yet another abandonment. Unfortunately, her fear often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adults and other children may be put off by the anxious child's neediness.

Child abandonment can cause serious psychological effects. If not treated by a compassionate therapist who is experienced in working with neglected or abandoned children, these problems and dysfunctional ways of viewing the world may persist into adulthood and cause problems on the job and in adult relationships.

Cite this page: Nugent, Pam M.S., "Psychological Effects of Child Abandonment," in PsychologyDictionary.org, January 10, 2016, https://psychologydictionary.org/article/psychological-effects-of-child-abandonment/ (accessed December 16, 2018).
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