According to UNICEF, there are 153 million orphans worldwide. While not all of these children will have abandonment issues, millions will. Unfortunately, many of these children will spend the rest of their lives in orphanages. Even for those who do get adopted, many will struggle to form a healthy attachment due to underlying abandonment trauma.It’s not only kids in orphanages who can have these types of struggles, however. Infants adopted from birth or who spent time in foster care can struggle with this, too, as can children who were separated from a parent/caregiver for any reason. This can include babies who spent time in the NICU, parents who traveled often, children of divorced parents, and other scenarios.
These types of issues can last a lifetime if they are overlooked. Children may struggle with school, social relationships, romantic relationships, and even starting their own family one day as a result.
This article will explore abandonment issues in children and ways to help build healthy attachment at home. It is worth noting here that adults can certainly have these types of struggles as well. This article is going to primarily focus on children, however.
What are abandonment issues?
Abandonment issues develop out of a fear of being abandoned. One does not necessarily need to have been abandoned for them to develop. They may develop when an unhealthy or incomplete attachment is formed as well. Children raised in the homes of mentally ill parents or parents with chronic illness can also develop them. As can children with emotionally distanced and detached parents.
It is almost impossible for a child to vocalize their fears and concerns in this area. They won’t develop overnight. It will develop gradually over time and can have major implications.
What are common signs of abandonment issues?
These can manifest in a variety of ways depending on the child and their age. These are some of the common things to look out for:
- Arching their back and moving away from touch
- Inconsolable crying when a parent or caregiver leaves
- Attaching too quickly to someone
- Clingy behavior/ inability to say goodbye even for short amounts of time
- Low self-esteem
- People-pleasing behaviors
- Extreme jealousy over a parent or caregivers’ bond with someone else
- Refusing comfort
- Anxiety and depression
- Anxiety (or even panic) that something may happen to a parent or caregiver when they are gone
- Health issues such as frequent stomachaches, headaches, joint pain, etc.
Keep in mind that these types of behaviors can also appear for other reasons. Don’t panic if you see something on this list in your child and automatically think they’re struggling with abandonment. There may be something else going on. Reach out to a counselor if you are concerned about your child’s behavior in any way.
Tips for strong, healthy attachment
The following tips for forming a healthy attachment can be useful for all families. There’s never a bad time to form a stronger attachment and bond between caregivers and children. Bear in mind that children who have abandonment issues, or have been abused and neglected, may be more resistant and you’ll need to go slower with them. However, any family can use these tips.
Counseling. All families could receive help from counseling at various parts of their journey. If you’re an adoptive parent, counseling may even be a required part of your adoption process. Families with children who have trauma backgrounds may find they need to revisit counseling during puberty, the teen years, and adolescence. Hormonal shifts and different life experiences can cause past issues and fears to resurface and manifest in unusual ways.
Massage and a gentle touch can also be helpful. If a child has been abused, it is best to get some professional guidance on positive touch for abused children. Positive touch can be deeply healing for a child that’s been abused. It can also be incredibly scary and confusing for them if they’ve never experienced it.
Touch is a powerful bonding and attachment tool. Many folks think about infants benefitting from touch, but the truth is that we all do. Shop with your older child to select some sort of lotion or a massage oil that they like. This helps them feel more involved in the process. Make sure to listen to their feedback on pressure, strokes, etc.
Skin-to-skin contact is best, but some children may not be able to handle this at first. Rub their back over their shirt. If they will let you hold their hand or rub their feet, try that. Or gently stroke or brush their hair. Aim for some sort of gentle touch or massage every day even if it’s rubbing their back while you read a story.
Dry skin brushing can be therapeutic. This involves a special brush usually made from plant bristles. The brush is gently rubbed across the child’s skin in strokes or circles. It is a customary practice for children with sensory issues. It is also an effective way to calm the nervous system and provide positive touch and feedback to the skin.
(Plus, it’s a wonderful way to exfoliate and stimulate the lymphatic system so it has a few other benefits!) Children may even ask to have their skin brushed when they’re feeling overwhelmed, upset, or need a little bit of comfort.
Laughing together is one of the best bonding activities you can find. Find a joke book and read jokes aloud together or read some other funny book together. Be careful with movies and visual media, it can be triggering for some children. Find some activities that the child thinks are funny and engage in them together. You may need to pretend to laugh at first, but laughter is contagious and soon you’ll be laughing together.
You could also try playing the laughing game. Everyone lays down on the floor or the bed. Each person puts their head on someone else’s belly. Then you start to laugh. At first, it will be fake laughter as you all pretend to laugh and giggle.
There’s something about feeling someone else laughing that makes you start to laugh. Soon as you all feel each other’s bellies moving with laughter, you’ll all start to genuinely laugh. This can be a fun thing to do together as you all wake up on a Saturday morning.
Consistent routine and consistent boundaries are also important to build a healthy attachment. This is important with all children, especially those who came from a background with neglect or a lot of instability. Try to have meals, bedtime, and chores at the same time each day. Try to have a consistent after-school and evening routine too. Your counselor can help you to establish good boundaries and healthy consequences for when those boundaries are broken.
Avoiding screens with, and around, your child is best. An occasional movie is okay if the child is interested. An entire article could be written just on this subject but suffice it to say that children who struggle with abandonment issues often struggle when their parent or caregiver spends a lot of time on screens.
They can see it as another form of abandonment because it takes the parent away from being fully present. Screens are an essential part of most of our lives but consider what you can do when your child is not around.
More ideas include:
- Weighted blankets
- Co-sleeping for a season
- Snuggling (even for older children sometimes)
- Reading books (there’s nothing quite like reading an enjoyable book aloud to your child)
- Holding hands and going for a walk
- Time outside
- Playing at the beach together
- Board games
- Card games
Christian Counseling for Abandonment Issues
If you’re looking for additional support and professional advice for dealing with abandonment issues and helping your child form a healthy attachment, feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the counselor directory. We would be happy to help!
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