Every time I want to write about emotional abandonment, I stop myself because I do not like the name.
I like the definition: Emotional abandonment occurs when a parent does not meet the emotional nurturance needs of a child. Some of these needs, as described by Pete Walker in his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” include:
Meeting the child consistently with caring regard and interest
Welcoming and valuing the child’s full emotional expression
Modeling non-abusive expression of emotions
Teaching safe ways to release anger that do not hurt the child or others
Generous amounts of love, warmth, tenderness, and compassion
Honoring tears as a way of releasing hurt
Being a safe refuge
When parents provide these things, they see, understand, and respond to a child’s unique and whole self.
Emotional abandonment occurs when a parent does not meet a children’s basic emotional needs. This could look like:
A parent who provides all of the physical necessities for their child, but seldom takes the time to interact, listen, and know the child’s feelings and thoughts.
An authoritarian parent who demands their child behave in a specific way, without any space for the child to discover and develop into their own unique self.
A parent who unexpectedly explodes in anger and frequently yells, leaving a child to feel constantly on egg shells and unsafe in the home.
There are many variations of what it looks like when a child’s emotional needs are not met, but the end result is the same: the child is emotionally abandoned.
The name is accurate.
However, the use of the word “abandoned” connotes someone who has left or is not present. The extremity of the word causes many individuals to feel that “emotional abandonment” does not apply to them because their parents were physically present.
In my art therapy practice, clients have told me about parents who told them not to cry and disciplined them if they got upset. When I discuss emotional abandonment with them, they protest that they weren’t abandoned.They provide examples of how their mom took care of them when they broke their arm or how their dad drove them to every sport and extracurricular activity.
They feel they couldn’t have been “emotionally abandoned” because their parents were physically present and showed love in their own way (attending to their physical needs).
A parent can be present and meet her child’s physical needs (such as attending to a broken arm), without providing an emotionally safe space where a child feels comfortable crying.
A parent can still love his child and not provide for their emotional needs.
Once I explain to clients the full meaning of “emotional abandonment,” they often feel it applies to them.
However, when I first introduce the term, the word “abandonment” creates confusion and interrupts the therapeutic flow of feeling seen and understood.
Even after a client understands the meaning of the term, they continue to feel uncomfortable using the word “abandonment.”
I want the vocabulary I provide a client to resonate and liberate them.
Vocabulary can let us know we are not alone; that what we experienced has a name and an impact. Once we can name it, we can free ourselves from it.
The term “emotional abandonment” does not do that. I think it’s time for it to be renamed.
I provide therapy for individuals who experienced emotional abandonment,
whether they resonate with the name or not ;)