Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment: Nurturing Emotionally Secure Children
God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” – Hebrews 13:5
For some people, the smell of freshly baked bread brings warm and enduring memories of home. For others, the feel of fresh cut grass underfoot reminds them of time spent playing with a parent or siblings on the front lawn.Smells, sights, and sounds have the power to evoke powerful emotions, the good and the bad. They anchor us to specific places, times, and people. Depending on what these sensations attach to, it may leave you feeling nostalgic for something precious, or it may reopen old wounds.
One need that all people have is that of a sense of belonging. When we feel we belong, whether to a community, a family, a team, a group, or an organization, that is an important cornerstone to our sense of wellbeing and identity. Conversely, when we don’t have that sense of belonging, it affects our sense of self and may even affect our mental health and the desire to commit to others in relationships.
Experiencing abandonment can bring up feelings of shame due to the underlying message such abandonment implies – that you aren’t significant or important. This can be traumatic, and when one experiences this as a child, they can carry those same feelings of shame and insecurity into other relationships, including with their own children.
There are some sources of abandonment that are harder to avoid, where the trauma that leads to abandonment issues stems from the death of a parent or poverty, parents or caregivers have little they can do to alleviate or prevent that.
What is Abandonment?
Abandonment can occur when people do not receive the physical, emotional, and psychological protection and support they need. For children, this can occur when they do not receive appropriate nutrition, clothing, shelter, and attention. It can also occur when negative experiences such as sexual and physical abuse are present.
Abandonment can thus take place in families where both parents are present and alcohol abuse is not a factor. Patterns of neglect and unmet needs can lead to the development of fear of abandonment.
Abandonment and the fear of it undermines the development of secure attachments, which are necessary for the development of self-identity and healthy relational growth. As such, abandonment issues harm a child’s future social, intimate, or professional relationships.
Some of the signs that a child has abandonment issues include them having a fear of being alone, having difficulty focusing on tasks, being clingy, worrying about losing their parent or caregiver, having separation anxiety, and being ill due to the emotional stress they carry. The course of these children is not fixed – there are steps a parent or caregiver can take to undo some of the damage done and address any abandonment issues before they set into a deep-seated fear.
Nurturing Emotionally Secure Children
What steps might a parent or caregiver take to help their children be emotionally and physically secure, form secure attachments, and avoid developing abandonment issues? Parents and caregivers should seek professional help if they believe a child is experiencing abandonment issues.
Here are a few suggestions of what one can do to nurture children so they feel secure and are emotionally healthy:
Let them know that you love them.
Sometimes parents and caregivers can take for granted that their children know they are loved. This simply isn’t so. Just as adults need to be told and shown that they are loved, children do as well.To counter the message that they are not important, they need to be reminded often that they are highly regarded and cherished. Each child is different, and so you need to learn how each child hears, loud and clear, the message that they are loved.
Some children want to spend quality time with a parent. They’ll ask to read a book, play dress up or toy soldiers – they want to spend time with the person they love, and for that person to want to spend time with them.
Other children enjoy giving gifts to people they love, and so giving them a gift is what communicates love to them, and so on. This is what Gary Chapman has termed “love languages.” We each speak a certain love language, a way in which we share our love for others and through which we hear most clearly that others love us.
Each child will have their own love language and speaking that love language is key to each child knowing they are loved deeply. A resource like Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages of Children may be a valuable one for a parent or caregiver to have.
Allow kids to be themselves
This is a big one and needs to be broken down into several smaller bits. The basic idea is that children need to feel that they are accepted for who they are.
Of course, all children have some rough edges and bad habits they need to be nurtured past; nonetheless, they need to know that the basic posture towards them is one of acceptance and embrace. This can be communicated to them in several ways, including:
- They can make mistakes without being rejected.While they can and will make mistakes, they need to know that they won’t be spurned because of it. They need to feel free to share their failures because they know they are accepted. If a child feels they must hide failures because of how they will be made to feel, there may be a problem there.
- Allow them to express their needs.Children have their own feelings and needs. they need to be allowed to voice these, and for that to be okay. If they feel their needs should not be expressed, what they learn from that is that their needs don’t matter.
- Be appropriate in your expectations.Children go through phases of development. They begin speaking at a certain point, learn to use the potty, and stop bedwetting, and they have their own innate capacities and gifts. To lay heavy expectations on them that are beyond their gifts and stage of development simply leaves those children feeling lost without any real way for them to remedy the situation.
- Celebrate their successes.Part of feeling welcome in a family is being celebrated when you succeed. Big or small, it matters to the child when they accomplish something and being recognized for it is a huge boost for self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Celebrate those illegible doodles, when they learn to walk, tie their laces, or ride a bike, or when they come home with a good grade they have worked hard for.
- Aim your rebuke at behavior, not at the child.When a child does something wrong, the focus should be on the behavior. That mistake isn’t the sum total of the child, and so calling a child a “failure” because they got a bad grade, chips away at that child, and causes them to identify themselves with the failure.
Reassure them of your presence
This can be done with something as simple as letting the kids know what your and their day look like – it lets them know what to expect. They know where you are and what you’re doing. This is especially helpful for children who have experienced some loss and have a fear of losing someone else that is important to them.
While parents and caregivers cannot avoid all the ups and downs thrown at them by life, giving a sense of predictability and clarity to their children goes a long way toward helping those children feel a semblance of security.
Conclusion: Breaking the CycleBeing cared for and knowing you are loved is a deep human need. God has promised us that He will never leave or forsake us, and often that promise is fulfilled through the people God places around us to nurture and be our support. Feeling abandoned, or living in fear of it, is a huge burden to bear, especially for a child.
Abandonment issues can, if left unaddressed, spill over from childhood into adult life and relationships. The great news is that it is possible for us to address the wounds inflicted upon us by our possible fears of abandonment, and to break that cycle with our children.
Meeting their emotional and physical needs and providing a secure environment for them to grow puts us in a good place to nurture them to become relationally healthy people now and in the future. It starts with us having a clear-eyed view of ourselves and our children and then taking the necessary steps to begin the journey toward wholeness.
“Fern”, Courtesy of Pongsawat Pasom, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Kayaking”, Courtesy of Takahiro Taguchi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alone”, Courtesy of Ichsan Naufal, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Birds”, Courtesy of Brittani Burns, Unsplash.com, CC0 License