Loss is a normal part of life. But for some people, fear of losing their loved ones is a constant source of anxiety, also known as fear of abandonment.1

Fear of abandonment is usually a consequence of abuse, neglect or other traumatic experiences early in life. In some cases, abandonment issues are a symptom of borderline personality disorder.1

There are many characteristic signs of abandonment issues. For example, children may refuse to go to school or daycare. Adults, on the other hand, may have trouble opening up and forming close relationships with others. It also leads to attention-seeking and people-pleasing behaviors.1

Fortunately, abandonment issues are treatable. Many people with these issues go on to develop healthy relationships with the help of therapy.1

A worried woman sitting next to their bed
VALENTINRUSSANOV / GETTY IMAGES

What Is Fear of Abandonment?

A fear of abandonment is a form of anxiety where a person fears losing loved ones. It can manifest as a fear of loved ones dying or relationships ending. It can impact people’s relationships throughout their lifetime.1 These fears tend to develop early in childhood, affecting up to 4% of all children.2

Abandonment issues relate to distinct attachment styles.3 These attachment styles include:45

  • Avoidant attachment: People with this style of attachment have trouble forming relationships. They may feel that they can’t open up to others for fear of them leaving.
  • Anxious/resistant attachment: In this form of attachment, people form close dependent relationships. This may be because they worry about the other person leaving them.
  • Disorganized attachment: People with this attachment style have mixed feelings. It has features of both avoidant and anxious attachment styles.
  • Secure attachment: This attachment style helps foster healthy relationships. People with this attachment style appreciate their own self-worth and are not over reliant on others.

Common Signs of Abandonment Issues

There are many common signs of abandonment issues. If these signs and symptoms meet the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-5), it may lead to a formal diagnosis of separation anxiety.1

Signs and symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Anxiety and fears about loved ones: Feeling like your loved ones are leaving you. Worrying that you will end up alone. Worrying that you will let others down.6
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships: People with abandonment issues are more likely to be unmarried or divorced. They may cycle through relationships quickly or cling to unhealthy ones. They may ask for constant reassurance from loved ones. They may also engage in attention-seeking behaviors.1
  • Cognitive and psychiatric symptoms: People with these issues may have trouble concentrating, high levels of irritability, and suicidal ideation, and are more likely to develop other psychiatric conditions like anxiety.1  

Signs of Abandonment Issues in Children 

Traumatic events like the death of a parent can lead to abandonment issues in some children.7 Some common signs of the condition include:1

  • Crying, yelling, or tantrums when a parent leaves
  • Anxiety about going to school or daycare
  • Concerns, fears, or excessive anxiety over separation from parents
  • Nightmares and bedwetting

Children may also experience physical symptoms alongside these issues. These symptoms include:8

  • Headache
  • Abdominal discomfort or gastrointestinal issues
  • Chest pain
    • Smoking: This increases the chances of children developing psychological problems by 20% to 80%.9
    • Alcohol consumption: This increases the chances that children will develop separation anxiety and other mental health conditions early in life.10High heart rate

      What Causes Abandonment Issues? 

      There are many reasons people develop abandonment issues. It is usually a mix of environmental and genetic conditions. In some cases, they may be caused by other underlying conditions.

      Prenatal Environment

      Many factors that contribute to abandonment issues later in life occur prior to birth. This is because the health of a pregnant parent will impact the development of the fetus.1 These factors include:

    Early-life Experiences

    Parenting styles, neglect, trauma, abuse, and other early-life experiences may contribute to abandonment issues. Some of these factors include:

    • Long periods of parental absence: This can result from a parents’ work, divorce, military deployment, or immigration.1
    • Loss of a parent: Losing a parent early may cause abandonment issues. Six years after the loss of a parent, the child may continue to experience relationship-related anxiety.7
    • Parental alcoholismAround 14% of children with parents who have alcohol use disorders will develop separation anxiety.8
    • Unhealthy parenting or abuse: Examples of these parenting styles that lead to increased abandonment issues include sleeping in the same bed as the child, showing a lack of affection, and physical/verbal/sexual abuse.1
    • Parental mental health: When a child’s parents have other underlying mental health conditions, it may increase the chances that the child develops abandonment issues.8
    • Unstable home life: Routinely moving locations and growing up in foster homes could lead to abandonment issues.1

    Underlying Conditions

    Abandonment issues are a symptom of different mental health and medical conditions. Treating the underlying mental health condition helps alleviate these symptoms. These conditions include:

    • Borderline personality disorderPeople with this condition struggle with relationships, impulsivity, self-image issues, and emotional regulation.6
    • Underlying anxiety disorders: Abandonment issues are a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.1
      • Spotting anxious thoughts without engaging them
      • Getting sleep, exercising, and eating healthy to reduce stress
      • Practicing hobbies and activities that build self-confidence
      • Staying in touch with a support network of friends and familyOther underlying disorders: This includes migraines, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, thyroid disease, and cardiac arrhythmias.1

        How to Cope with Abandonment Issues

        There are many individualized strategies for coping with abandonment issues. Importantly, it is possible for people to treat these issues and improve their relationships.3

        Talk Therapy

        Online and in-person therapy helps people develop healthy strategies to cope with their abandonment issues. Some popular platforms to find an online therapist include:1

        • BetterHelp: A platform that is especially helpful for finding an online practitioner for treating depressive symptoms.
        • TalkSpace: An online platform similar to BetterHelp which provides options to engage in text with your therapist. It is also easy to use on a mobile device.
        • Teen Counseling: This online platform specializes in providing therapy to teenagers.

        Multiple forms of therapy are effective. This includes:

        • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is considered a frontline treatment for abandonment issues. It helps reframe your negative thought patterns and behaviors.1
        • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): This form of therapy helps a person feel more comfortable with discomfort and anxiety. After accepting the anxiety, therapists will help a person act based on values rather than impulsive emotions.11
        • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): This form of therapy is effective for abandonment issues, including those stemming from borderline personality disorder. This form of therapy is modeled off of cognitive behavioral therapy. However, it puts more emphasis on self-acceptance and learning to regulate emotions.12

        Anti-anxiety Medications

        When therapy on its own isn’t showing results, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication. The anti-anxiety medication belongs to a class of drugs called selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors.1

        They affect chemical signaling in the brain. This can help make the effects of therapy stick. These drugs are prescribed for at least 6 months. Then, they are gradually discontinued as the abandonment issues subside.1

        Family Counseling

        Family counseling helps caregivers’ adjust their parenting styles and better understand their child.1

        Some strategies that parents may learn include:131

        • Keeping promises
        • Maintaining a consistent schedule
        • Good-bye rituals
        • Practicing being apart

        Self-care

        There are many self-care strategies that help a person cope with abandonment issues. Some of these self-care tips are also taught by mental health professionals. These include:14

         

        How Do Abandonment Issues Show Up in Relationships?

        There are many ways these issues show up in relationships. Some signs include:61

        • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships: People with abandonment issues may become overly dependent on friends or loved ones. They may have a fear of being alone, or worry that their friends or partners don’t care for them.
        • Panic and anxiety: People with abandonment issues are prone to panic or become anxious when friends or loved ones leave. They may ask for additional reassurance, or call you repeatedly after you leave.
        • Communication problems: People with abandonment issues may be more impulsive. This means their emotions get the better of them. They may try to guilt others to stay with them longer, or engage in unhealthy attention-seeking behaviors.

        Parents, loved ones, and caregivers of someone with abandonment issues can also help them cope when they notice these signs. Some helpful strategies include:15

        • Provide reassurance: People with abandonment issues often worry that their friends and loved ones will abandon them. Offering reassurance for their concerns helps put them at ease.
        • Validate their feelings: Don’t disregard their concerns as unrealistic or wrong. Instead, validate their emotions and feelings of anxiety.
        • Speak with them in a calm manner: If you notice a friend or loved one engaging in concerning behavior, speak with them calmly. Tell them that you are concerned about them. Let them know that you care about them and if appropriate, suggest additional professional help.

          A Quick Review

          Abandonment issues are a form of anxiety that negatively impacts relationships. It causes excess stress and worry over loved ones leaving them. Trauma, abuse, neglect early in life, or other mental health conditions can lead to abandonment issues. Fortunately, these are readily treated through talk therapy

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