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What is Abandonment Trauma?

From the moment a baby comes into the world, forming attachments to parents or other caregivers is critical to a child’s emotional, physical and psychological development. For an infant, having a gentle and responsive caregiver provides the nurturing a child needs to grow into a healthy adult. A cared for child develops self-esteem, feels secure in exploring the world around him or her and has a strong foundation for understanding how to build healthy relationships later in life.

But if those earliest relationships break down, the child may experience what is known as abandonment or neglect trauma. Mental health issues, substance abuse or the physical absence of parents or caregivers due to death or divorce can all contribute to abandonment trauma, also known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of abandonment.

How Abandonment Trauma Hurts Development

Abandonment trauma leaves children feeling unsafe, unimportant and unsure of how their needs are going to be met. This can leave an imprint on an individual’s psychological well-being into adulthood, increasing the likelihood of developing substance use disorders, eating disorders, relationship difficulties and mental health disorders.

Healthy individuals rely on stable and safe relationships throughout the developmental years to show them how to grow healthy relationships throughout life. The earliest relationships teach children how to identify danger, bond with new people, identify their own needs, and how to be loved by another person.

Traumatic experiences in childhood, such as a parent who is under the influence of alcohol and drugs or has serious psychiatric issues and fails to adequately protect and care for their child, are major causes of abandonment trauma. But there can be other situations that can contribute to PTSD of abandonment as well. An elementary school student trying to reconcile why one parent now lives far away due to a divorce, or a teenager who has a parent in jail, can also experience feelings of abandonment and subsequently show signs of abandonment trauma. While not every child who goes through these experiences necessarily suffers long-term issues as a result, he or she can certainly contribute to problems later on in life, especially when combined with other forms of trauma or other issues within the family.

While it’s more common for abandonment trauma to occur during the developmental years of childhood and early adulthood, the events that trigger abandonment trauma can happen at any time in life. Adults may experience abandonment trauma as a result of an unwanted divorce or the death of a partner or spouse. The ending of these most important relationships can make the individual feel less safe, less loved, and less equipped to have healthy relationships in the future.

Causes of Abandonment Disorder

Abandonment disorder, also referred to as abandonment syndrome, is caused by an adverse experience or experiences that leave a person feeling unsafe, fearful and alone. The intense emotional distress can impact a person’s health over a lifetime. PTSD of abandonment stems from losses and disconnections in early childhood, such as:

  • A parent who is emotionally unavailable.
  • Childhood neglect due to substance abuse, such as alcoholism or drug abuse.
  • Mental illness, such as depression, in a parent or caregiver.
  • A serious physical illness in a parent or caregiver, leaving the person to be unable to tend to the child’s basic needs for love and attention.
  • The sudden loss of a parent or caregiver who the child depended on to feel safe and loved.
  • Significant family instability, such as parents who are preoccupied with a difficult divorce or a parent who is only sporadically engaged with the child.

Signs of PTSD of Abandonment

While each individual is unique and experiences trauma differently, certain symptoms may indicate an individual is living with PTSD of abandonment:

  • Fear of being left behind or abandoned.
  • Inability to form healthy relationships in the teenage or adult years.
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
  • Anxiety and insecurity.
  • Depression.
  • Feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, being “not enough.”
  • “Checking out” of relationships or friendships, feeling unattached or emotionally unavailable to connect.
  • Holding on to a relationship, even if it is unhealthy or abusive, so as to avoid any feelings of abandonment or loneliness.
  • Episodes of self-harming behaviors.
  • Fear of conflict within a relationship, or avoiding the conflict at all costs.
  • Avoiding all relationships or friendships.
  • An excessive and pronounced need for control, whether it be control over environment, other people, or situations.
  • Self-judgment and setting unrealistic expectations, perfectionism.
  • Reacting to situations on one extreme or the other, for example, reacting too much or not at all to difficult situations.
  • Emotional flashbacks, leading to feelings of panic or intense emotional distress.
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The Link Between Trauma and Eating Disorders

Past traumatic experiences are well-known contributors to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Trauma leads to a loss of feelings of control. People may attempt to cope with the stress and anxiety stemming from trauma by withholding food, such as in anorexia, purging or binge eating. The behaviors can be a tactic people use to numb or distance themselves from disturbing memories and emotions. Some researchers have also suggested that the eating disorder is a form of self-abuse, self-blame and a reaction to shame that has resulted from the trauma. Through the eating disorder behavior, the person with the eating disorder is recreating the pain they felt as a result of the trauma, only this time the individual has control over what is happening rather than having it inflicted on them.

Anorexia is a condition in which an individual severely restricts food and calories in order to loose weight, and has difficulty maintaining a healthy body weight. When left untreated, anorexia is a long-term illness and has a high risk of death.

Bulimia is characterized by a cycle of uncontrolled food binging behaviors followed by purging, such as vomiting or using laxatives, restricting behaviors, for example, fasting, or excessive exercise.​

Binge eating disorder occurs when a person eats more in a short amount of time than most people would, while also feeling unable to control the eating. These episodes are often followed by feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or self-disgust.

How Abandonment Trauma Contributes to Eating Disorders

Like other forms of trauma, post-traumatic stress of abandonment specifically can also contribute to eating disorders. Individuals who have experienced past abandonment trauma situations are more likely to have self-harming behaviors, low self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, as well as a need for a sense of control. This can be a breeding ground for eating disorders.

For example, people who live with anorexia often suffer with anxiety issues. Strictly counting calories and maintaining a low body weight allows them to gain a sense of control over that aspect of their life. Similarly, individuals who live with bulimia or binge eating disorder often struggle with self-judgment and shame, as well as self-harm.

PTSD from abandonment trauma can leave people feeling anxious and worried about their own physical and emotional safety. Children worried about how their basic needs will be met may suffer from anxiety and have a pronounced need for control over what’s happening around them.

Abandonment trauma may also cause people to enter into or stay in unhealthy or abusive relationships, which in turn can lead to additional trauma that feeds eating disorders.

It’s important to recognize that there is rarely just one factor contributing to an eating disorder. It’s often a culmination of experiences, combined with other genetic, environmental and psychological factors, that tips a person into eating disorder behaviors.

PTSD of Abandonment is Linked To:

  • Anxiety
  • Borderline personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Other mood disorders

Treating Abandonment Disorder

The symptoms of PTSD of abandonment may be mild or severe. When it comes to diagnosing and treating eating disorders, the treatment team at Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders works with the individual to uncover the root of the eating disorder behavior. Along the way, it is common for the health team to find issues with anxiety, obsessions or compulsions, a desire to control, and past traumas.

In most cases, the abandonment situation has occurred long before the eating disorder begins. It may take time for individuals to make the connection that the past trauma is a contributor to the eating disorder because one coping mechanism can be to block out or minimize the experience. The abandonment may have also happened when the individual was too young to remember the details.

When the underlying trauma is identified, and unhealthy coping skills are addressed through a multidisciplinary approach, the individual can not only conquer their eating disorder, but can also learn how to foster healthy relationships in their future. Through therapy, counseling and trauma treatment techniques such as EMDR, individuals can recover from abandonment. This includes coming to terms with the abandonment and addressing co-occurring disorders that may have emanated from it. Recovery from abandonment trauma also means learning ways to avoid self-sabotage in relationships that may occur as a result of their anxiety, a difficulty trusting and a tendency to isolate or withdraw from others.

Goals of treatment include helping people develop the self-esteem and sense of self-worth that they may have lost due to trauma of abandonment. Treatment can help people identify the source of their need for control. In group and individual therapy, individuals learn to identify what makes a healthy relationship and develop an understanding of how they deserve to be treated by those they interact with, and those they love. Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy help individuals learn ways of coping with anxiety, stress and interpersonal conflict without resorting to eating disorder behaviors. In treatment, people also receive medications and help in managing co-occurring disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and other conditions that can fuel the eating disorder.

Residential treatment for eating disorders of course also targets eating and food-related behaviors specifically. Meal plans, nutritional counseling, individual and group therapy, and experiential therapies such as cooking classes and restaurant outings provide opportunities to put the skills learned in treatment to use in the real word.

This comprehensive approach to trauma and eating disorders treatment lays the groundwork for long-term recovery. Our trauma-informed, experienced and highly credentialed clinical staff is here to help individuals heal from the damaging experiences of their past and move toward a healthier, more peaceful future.

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