Childhood Abandonment Issues


This unified model of abandonment issues, Codependency, Adult Child Syndrome, alcoholism, and addiction, I call The “Iceberg” has evolved over the 30 years since I first began developing it as my practice model. I use it to explain and explore abstract concepts about being human such as…

  • Abandonment, shame, & contempt
  • The development of the “False-Self”
  • The recovery of the “True-Self”

Thawing the Iceberg Online Courses

Before We Begin:

  • It helps if you take this presentation as a general model…as you read stay focused on your own childhood, looking for the similarities and ignore the differences.
  • This presentation is NOT about blaming our parents – it’s about the acknowledgment of what happened so we can heal the abandonment issues, stop the cycle, and live a happier life.
  • Parents do the best they can – In fact, they are usually on a crusade to make sure their kids “have it better than I did!”
  • Your parents were raised by their parents…who were raised by their parents…and so on. Parents can’t give much more than they have been given themselves – its just not in their neural networks.
  • If you are a parent – please, as you read this try to focus on at least as much of your own childhood experience as you do on the experience of your own children – and know that you CAN make changes to the networks of childhood experience!
  • And finally, If this information strikes a chord in you and you would like to learn how to begin the healing, click on the image below to select the online course that is right for you. (Click the contact link at the top of the page if you have questions for Don.)

Abandonment Issues – The Iceberg, Part I

I use the Iceberg Model to explain things that happen to people who have not been able, for one reason or another, to get their dependency Needs met fully and the impact this may have on their lives and their pursuit of happiness.

The Iceberg represents a human being. The waterline represents the dividing line between what’s in our conscious mind – above the water… and what’s in our subconscious mind – below the surface. The deeper beneath the surface = the deeper we are into our subconscious mind. (See diagram below)

Source of Abandonment Issues

To learn about dependency needs – Read This First

Children who get their dependency needs met fully, on a regular basis, will thrive, flourish, and grow at a healthy pace. In the worst case, kids who do not get their needs met at all will experience a failure-to-thrive and many will die from abandonment issues.

Let’s use the analogy of an emotional gas tank – if our needs are met fully we feel full, satisfied, content, happy. If we don’t get our needs met at all we feel a great emptiness inside.  I’ve heard this emptiness described in many ways – a black hole, a void, a vacuum, an ache, a longing…to name a few. Suppose we get our needs met half the time.

We may feel half-full but something is missing – we still feel an ache inside. This is the emotional woundedness – the original pain that comes from the abandonment of childhood dependency needs. Again, it’s not usually a question of whether our parents loved us or even if they did the best they could. Many people get stuck at this point saying… “So why go back and dig all that up?

They did the best they could and that’s that… You can’t change the past.” To those people, I say keep reading. This page will show you why it is important to “dig all that up” when abandonment issues are a problem. Suffice it to say here that assigning blame is not the reason. Children have not yet developed the skills to cope effectively with emotional pain. It seems they can handle a broken arm better than a broken heart. They rely heavily on a defense mechanism called repression to push the emotional wound deep into their unawareness – or subconscious mind (See diagram below).

the Iceberg model of abandonment issuesThe extent of abandonment issues may be mild, moderate, or severe… depending upon the extent of the original pain. Mild to moderate cases of abandonment issues come from situations in which the child does not fully – or consistently – get their emotional dependency needs met.

There may be few overt signs of family dysfunction or abuse – For instance, it may be that one or both parents are able to give reasonable amounts of time, attention and direction but they seem unable to express affection – The words “I love you” may rarely be heard, if at all, in this family.

A lack of hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and other expressions of affection leaves a child to wonder how they measure up in the eyes of their parents – remember, to a child affection equals approval.

Another common abandonment scenario occurs when one of the parents is physically absent much of the time. The parent may be a “work-a-holic” who cannot seem to stop working long enough to find time for his family. (They may be using work to distract from their own abandonment issues)

He rationalizes his absence and breaks promises to be there for the child in the same way an alcoholic rationalizes her drinking and breaks promises to stop or control it better. The above scenario may lead to moderate levels of abandonment issues.

Severe cases of emotional wounding come from emotional, physical, and or psychological abuse and neglect. In these cases, the household becomes a dangerous place.

The neural networks of kids who grow up in abusive situations have to focus on survival – there’s not much time or opportunity to be a normal kid. One rule of thumb about growing up in a dysfunctional family is that it is NOT okay to ask directly for what you need…nor to expect to get it… When you try, you are likely to get the opposite.

So, the brain records and keeps track of behaviors that help the child get what they need. These behaviors get recorded on neural networks for behaviors we call survival skills. It is the magnificent ability of the brain to adapt to its environment that helps kids survive in a chaotic home.

Of course, those survival networks that helped them to survive childhood. For example… “Don’t Talk”, Don’t Trust”, and “Don’t Feel” rules – along with hyper-vigilance and difficulty regulating emotions…can get in the way of emotional health, intimate relationships, and job performance later in life.

Shame and Idealization

If a child does not feel safe she cannot relax – She is always on guard, scanning her environment for danger… Her anxiety level is very high and she has to stay alert and “tuned in” to everything going on around her. If the child can’t relax she can’t play. If she can’t play it interferes with her growth. Playing is how children learn and grow along normal developmental lines.

In order to feel safe – even in an unsafe environment – very young children use a subconscious defense called idealization. In other words, little kids put their parents up on a pedestal and see them as perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful god-like creatures. This makes them feel safe – “nothing can get to me since if I am protected by a god-like creature. Since god-like creatures are perfect, they are beyond reproach in the innocent mind of a child.

A child cannot say to themselves – “Well, dad has a drinking problem… That’s about him, not me… I don’t have to let it cause abandonment issues when he breaks his promises and yells at me all the time.” No, in the mind of a child it goes more like this – “If I were a better kid dad wouldn’t drink”… or, “If I was a better kid mom wouldn’t yell at me so much”… or, “Daddy please don’t leave, I’ll be good!”

Because of idealization young children can make sense of abandonment issues no other way – it has to be about them. Parents have all of the power and the child has none. They are totally submitted and committed to the parent. As a result, the child begins to develop a sense of defectiveness that grows along with the emotional wound.

So, if the original pain of abandonment is seen as an emotional wound, then Shame is an emotional infection that sets in on top of the wound…a little closer to the surface of awareness…yet still submerged beneath it. (See diagram below)

This infection has a voice… and it grows stronger as the abandonment issues accumulate. The child’s self-talk begins to sound like this – “No one could ever love me”… “I don’t count”… “What’s wrong with me?”… “I’m stupid, lazy, unworthy of anyone’s attention”. For children under 10 or 12 years of age these messages are in the form of “felt-thought”they feel like something is wrong with them…they feel like they are un-lovable. But they cannot put it into words.

Shame Attacks

Children over 10 or 12 years of age are entering a period of development where they are now becoming able to think in abstract terms – i.e. they are able to begin putting their internal experience into words…they begin to hear these messages of shame and defectiveness more clearly.

They now have a firmly established network of shame and defectiveness that we know as the Internal Critic or negative self-talk. It contains variations of the abandonment issues such as limiting beliefs, fears of abandonment, physiology, coping skills and memories of shame…

This network, like any other network, gets “triggered” by internal and external anchors which could be anything – a sight, sound, feeling, smell, or taste – anything that reminds them of shame or defectiveness. In moderate-to-severe cases, the child may then begin experiencing shame-laced abandonment issues called “shame attacks” where the network of the internal critic or self-talk unleashes a torrent of shamming messages.

In a shame-based family system, these internal messages of shame are actually confirmed by the parents… Sometimes the confirmations are somewhat subtle – veiled threats of abandonment, double-bind messages, gestures that convey contempt for the child, discounting, and other nonverbal expressions of disdain.

Other times the confirmations are directly stated … name-calling, belittling, emotional battering such as, “You’re stupid, ugly, lazy, fat, etc.” “No one could love you”… “You can’t do anything right”… “You’ll never amount to a hill of beans”…

By the time the child becomes a teenager with the ability to understand that mom and dad are NOT the perfect god-like creatures they once thought, the neural networks of abandonment issues, shame and defectiveness are already firmly established.

A network of hostility toward one or both parents begins to form. This sets up an internal conflict between networks – or “Parts of self” – such as a network of how to be a good son or daughter which applies guilt for feeling that way toward mom and/or dad.

Couple this with the fact that teenagers are naturally experiencing a need to rebel against the family – due to normal adolescent development – and you have the makings for an emotional scab of contempt to form over the woundedness of abandonment and the infection of shame.

The scab of contempt contains all the “crusty” feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment. Being closest to the surface, it’s what the person is most aware of.

I call it the “life sucks” network – It affects their whole experience of life as well as their role in it. Our emotions provide us with “energy to move” in a certain direction. The emotions of anger, bitterness, and resentment contain a lot of energy – that energy must go somewhere…

Abandonment Issues: Internalizing or Externalizing

There are two possible choices – The energy can be directed inward in the form of self-contempt… or outward as contempt for people, society, authority figures, the opposite sex, God or whoever is available – the man on the street. If we have a tendency to point the contempt inward we are internalizing it. If we are more likely to turn it outward toward others we are externalizing the contempt.

The self-talk of an Internalizer is all about the defectiveness of self and fears of abandonment. This leads to inappropriate guilt and more shame – which in turn makes the emotional infection worse. The self-talk of the Externalizer is all about the defectiveness of others and the “unfairness of it all”, leading to inappropriate expressions of anger, threats of abandonment, and in some cases physical or emotional abuse.

This also makes the emotional infection of shame worse – the conscious mind may be protected from reality but the subconscious mind doesn’t miss a trick. Many of us will internalize the contempt until we can’t take it anymore and then blow up – directing it outward in an attempt to displace and ventilate it.

When we externalize or “dump” our contempt in this way it lands on whoever is nearby, usually those who are closest to us. Then, because we have hurt someone we love, we turn the contempt back on ourselves through more shame-based messages such as… “See there, I’ve done it again… I’ve hurt someone I care about! I’ve proven it this time… I really am a loser!”

People who primarily Internalize their abandonment issues have problems with:

  • Depression
  • Other-Centeredness
  • Care-taking and approval-seeking
  • Lack of adequate boundaries
  • Have difficulty saying “no” for fear of abandonment
  • And, lack of a sense of personal power

Persons who predominantly Externalize their abandonment issues are less likely to be aware of their behavior and the effect it has on others…They tend to have problems with:

  • Anger
  • Self-centeredness
  • Being shameless and blameless – nothing is ever their fault, can’t admit when they are wrong
  • Intrusiveness – don’t respect the boundaries of others
  • Rigid boundaries – You can’t tell them anything
  • Anti-dependent – Proclaiming they don’t need anyone

All of these traits qualify as a subconscious defense mechanism called reaction formation…Reaction formation is a conscious over-compensation for a subconscious fear of the opposite – For example, their need to always be right may be a defense against deep-seated fears of always being wrong.

Externalizers have a tendency to demonstrate what Bradshaw calls shameless behavior. Shameless behavior is an abandonment issue seen in situations of abuse where the abuser is exercising god-like control over the victim – another reaction formation – in this case, a subconscious fear of being controlled expressed in a conscious need to control.

Extreme examples of shameless behavior include sexual, physical, psychological and emotional abuse. Shameless Externalizers develop a very thick scab of contempt. In extreme cases, the person may be unaware on a conscious level that his behavior is wrong… or even that it is hurtful to the victim.

On a subconscious level, the Externalizer cannot escape the reality of their behavior or its impact on others because the subconscious mind knows all. In other words, unless the Externalizer has no conscience – i.e., mental filters/networks related to values that would prohibit abusive behaviors – their shame, guilt, and remorse continue to accumulate even though they are largely unaware of it.

As their infection of shame grows, so does their contempt along with the need to externalize it. This build-up of contempt may eventually lead to episodes of violent and/or dangerous behavior – along with more abandonment issues.

Abandonment Issues and The False-Self

The wound of abandonment, the infection of shame, and the scab of contempt form a free-floating mass of pain just beneath the surface of awareness – This creates in a child a false sense of identity – A False-Self. (See diagram below)

The term “False-Self” is used because it is just that – false… as in NOT true… a counterfeit self, rooted in the abandonment issues. It only feels like who we are. It feels that way because the wound emotional in nature.

It’s not until significant healing of the abandonment, shame, and contempt that we are able to feel differently about ourselves.

Many times we have heard the saying “kids are resilient”. This is likely an effort to minimize our own guilt about not having been able to protect them and/or nurture them the way they needed.

While it is true that kids are resilient, the implication that they are now fine and have bounced back is not accurate – The wound of abandonment does not go away on its own. It must be tended to just like any other wound or the infection grows and it gets worse.

“Kids are survivors” is a more accurate statement – because they have a super-computer brain, they learn ways to survive the effects of abandonment issues… and even get some of their needs met despite difficult circumstances. The neural networks they develop help them to survive… but they don’t go very far in helping them cope with life or have healthy, intimate relationships.

Again, if you are a parent and these pages strike close to home… please stay with your own feelings of abandonment and your own childhood experiences as much as possible as you read.

Try to avoid getting lost in worry or guilt over your children – But by all means, get them into counseling if they need it… and pay attention to their behavior if they are acting out there is good news to come in the “Iceberg” Part II and Part III – (Click on the links at the bottom of this page)

For now, keep in mind that the best way to help them is to help you first. They learn by watching what you do… so demonstrate for them how to heal abandonment issues. By listening to your own thoughts and feelings you can stop abandoning your own needs and begin taking care of yourself too