The Effects of Childhood Abandonment in Adulthood

May 22, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Although there are laws to combat it, childhood abandonment still, unfortunately, happens every day. Childhood abandonment could include instances in which a parent physically abandons or gives up their child, as well as when the child is made to feel abandoned in other ways (such as through loss or neglect).

Abandonment not only affects a child’s development, but it also has long-term consequences that last well into adulthood. If you’re experiencing the effects of being abandoned as a child, there is hope of recovery. Here’s how childhood abandonment could impact you as an adult, and how you can seek support if you need it.


What is childhood abandonment?

Childhood abandonment is when a parent or caregiver does not provide a child with an environment that offers safety or adequate access to basic needs, care, attention, and support. Childhood abandonment can happen intentionally or unintentionally.

As shocking as it might seem, child maltreatment and neglect is pretty common. In the United State, roughly 1 in 7 children have experienced abuse or abandonment[1].

And while many laws have been enacted in the last several decades to combat it, a history of childhood abandonment has existed for thousands of years. The lingering effects of this type of childhood traumatic experience can be seen and felt into adulthood.

Childhood abandonment can happen in many ways, including physical abandonment, emotional neglect, and unintentional abandonment due to sickness or death.

Physical abandonment

Physical abandonment is when a parent physically separates from a child. It’s the type of abandonment we think of most often when we hear the word, like a parent leaving their child in front of a fire station or at a hospital.

Physical abandonment can also include physical neglect, which is when a parent doesn’t physically give up the child but doesn’t provide for their physical needs.

Signs of physical neglect might include:

  • Poor personal hygiene or physical appearance
  • Lack of clothing and supplies to meet basic needs
  • Lack of or inadequate access to food; food hoarding behaviors
  • Inadequate or inconsistent shelter/housing
  • Inadequate attention to healthcare needs (medical, dental, dietary, psychological, etc)

Emotional neglect

Emotional neglect is a lack of attention or awareness of a child’s emotional and developmental needs. This might involve a parent or guardian actively ignoring a child’s need for love, support, or attention.

Signs of emotional neglect might include:

  • Difficulty expressing or managing emotions
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty making or sustaining relationships
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Parents/guardians might be emotionally unavailable due to other issues such as substance use disorders, mental health conditions, and poverty. These issues potentially hinder their ability to be present and active in a child’s life.

Abandonment through death or loss

There are times when children are abandoned, not because any one person is at fault, but simply because a parent or guardian dies. Abandonment through death or loss can be just as hurtful and emotionally damaging as other forms of abandonment.


Long-term effects of childhood abandonment

The effects of childhood abandonment don’t go away when the child gets older. Many adults who were abandoned as children continue to experience the harmful consequences. A lot of this has to do with how abandonment and neglect can impact the developing brain.

Effects of neglect on the developing brain

Childhood abandonment can have a profound effect on the developing brain in the early stages of life that continue well into adulthood[2]. Meaningful and connected relationships are a crucial aspect of development; without those relationships, children’s development and well-being can be negatively impacted.

Neglect and abandonment alter how the brain develops and can cause cognitive delays that affect a child’s memory, their ability to plan, and focus their attention – all crucial skills for learning and development.

Chronic, or long-term, neglect is associated with a prolonged stress response that can lead to difficulty regulating emotions, poor impulse control, low self-confidence, and low level of enthusiasm.

All of these factors can contribute to behavioral and psychological effects in adulthood.

Effects on adult relationships

Childhood abandonment can also greatly impact our relationships later in life. Research in Attachment Theory suggests that our early relationships and emotional bonding can influence the way we form relationships, or not, throughout life.

Without safe and dependable relationships, a child may develop an insecure attachment style and struggle to have healthy, meaningful relationships in adulthood. An insecure attachment style as an adult might show up as a fear of abandonment. In relationships, a fear of abandonment might look like fast, intense attachment to a partner or intense feelings of anxiety when away from one’s partner.

On the opposite side, some people may develop an extreme sense of independence. They might experience a fear of being too dependent, feeling like they can never allow themselves to count on anyone else for help or support, and struggle with fully committing to a relationship.

Effects on self-esteem

Self-esteem is another cognitive concept that develops and is shaped in the early stages of life. Developing a healthy sense of self-esteem can be attributed to attentive, responsive caregivers who help validate a child’s sense of self.

Caregivers, attentive or not, shape the way a child comes to see themselves. Without attentive, responsive caregivers, children might develop strong feelings of self-doubt, low self-confidence and self-worth. When a child is abandoned, they may develop a core belief that they aren’t lovable or worthy. Children may internalize and blame themselves for the parent’s abandonment. It is also possible that a child might develop an overestimation and false sense of self that is unrealistic.

Mental health effects

In general, childhood maltreatment is linked to a higher risk for mental illness. At a young age, a lack of responsive relationships creates stress and activates the body’s stress response system. A prolonged lack of responsiveness develops into a toxic stress response that alters the architecture of the brain and body systems.

A number of mental health conditions are thought to be associated with childhood abandonment. For example, in borderline personality disorder (BPD), a key feature is a fear of abandonment. Although many factors can lead to BPD, the intense fear of abandonment is rooted in some type of childhood trauma. Childhood abandonment isn’t a singular cause of BPD, but it can contribute to its development. And studies show that BPD is associated with childhood abuse and neglect more often than any other mental health condition[3].

Other mental health conditions believed to have connections to abandonment are:

  • Anxiety
  • Codependency
  • Depression

Effects on behavior

With the potential impacts on the developing brain, childhood abandonment can also affect behavior. One study found that childhood abandonment and trauma may contribute to violent offenses[4].

Of course, a violent offense could be related to other changes that happen to the developing brain in abandonment. Hypersensitivity to criticism, increased mistrust, poor impulse control, and poor emotional regulation are factors that could compound to create an environment where a violent offense happens — all of which have been linked to childhood abandonment.


Signs of abandonment issues in adults

What are some of the signs that a person may have been impacted by abandonment as a child?

  • They need constant reassurance they’re loved and won’t be abandoned.
  • They reject people before being rejected themselves.
  • They have a pattern of volatile relationships or going from one relationship to another.
  • They have a core belief that they are unlovable.
  • They may engage in self-harm or have other mental health challenges.
  • They behave very “needy” in relationships or are overly dependent on relationships.
  • They experience extreme jealousy in relationships.
  • They are overly people-pleasing or forgo their own needs in order to please others.
  • They have a hard time trusting others.
  • They have an unhealthy sense of independence and have a difficult time asking for support.
  • They lack boundaries in relationships.
  • They have trouble communicating their own needs.
  • They worry excessively or ruminate about loved ones leaving them, either intentionally or through death.

To be clear, a fear of abandonment can come from many root causes, of which childhood abandonment is only one. Many people have a fear of abandonment even if they weren’t abandoned as children.


Treatment for trauma and PTSD at The Center ● A Place of HOPE

There is no doubt about it: childhood abandonment is a form of childhood trauma that can have severe consequences in adulthood. But, as with any other form of trauma, recovery is possible.

At The Center ● A Place of HOPE, we offer a unique trauma recovery program using our proven Whole Person Care method. Whole Person Care means that we see and honor who you are beyond the trauma you’ve been through.

We go as deep as we need to address your medical, physical, psychological, emotional, relational, familial, nutritional, fitness and spiritual needs and help you emerge as your true and full self. We help people who have experienced childhood abandonment as well as emotional and sexual abuse.

Childhood abandonment doesn’t need to impact you this way forever. There is hope.

Schedule a callback with us, and we’ll call you back at a time that works for you.


Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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