PORTRAIT OF A CHILD WHO IS STRUGGLING:
Typical feelings of a child:
anger, confusion, forgotten, grief, hopelessness, unwanted, unloved, unsafe.
Typical beliefs of a child:
“There is something wrong with me.” “I did something wrong.” “I don’t trust you, especially those in authority.”
Typical behaviors of a child:
Temper tantrums, constant testing of limits, withdrawal, refusal to follow adult requests, manipulative, demanding, sudden changes in mood and behaviors.
PORTRAIT OF AN ADOLESCENT WHO IS STRUGGLING:
Typical feelings of an adolescent:
Anger, defiance, forgotten, helplessness, hopelessness, misunderstood, revenge, unsafe, unwanted, unloved,
Typical beliefs of an adolescent:
“I’m the only one who can take care of me.” “I’m worthless.” “I’m not special enough to be loved.”
Typical behaviors of an adolescent:
Acting “tough” towards peers and adults, defiant towards authority figures, refusal to follow rules, can be charming to manipulate others, has a chip on his shoulder.
Abandonment can occur at anytime in a child or adolescent’s life. Typically, an infant or toddler experiences abandonment when separated from his biological parent. The older the child, the more she can tolerate some separation from mother; however, each separation, even with mother’s routine of out-of-home work, will require the mother to “repair” the attachment that has been interrupted.
Somewhere between the ages of four and five, the toddler begins to build the internal ability to take a permanent snapshot of his loved ones, so that he can recall what they looked like when they are no longer in the same room. These memory snapshots allow the child to recall images that are comforting to the child. Before the child has the ability to place a permanent snap shot in his memory bank, he needs frequent contact with his biological parents. We see this occurring in typical fashion when a baby becomes mobile and is able to crawl from room to room. When the baby realizes that he is in a room without his parent, he begins to cry until the parent appears and comforts him. Selma Friberg in her book, Magic Years, describes the toddlers action of “refueling” whenever the mobile toddler comes to find his parent and then relieved that “Yup, this is my Mom in the kitchen,” is able to crawl back into the living room for a short period of time before he has to “refuel” by checking on Mom again.
Children and adolescents are very resilient in accepting brief parental absences as long as they have achieved a secure attachment with their parent(s). If they haven’t attained this secure attachment, then they will struggle with any perceived abandonment by the parent. Typically they will react with anger, hostility, distrust, and the need for re-establishing a sense of consistent physical and emotional stability and comfort.
As with all emotional perceptions, there is a continuum that marks the severity of the emotional impact of feeling abandoned. When a child has formed a secure attachment with his biological parents, then when he is faced with their absence(s) he will be able to cope with more emotional security than a child who has had attachment disruption. This is also true for an adolescent. The early months and years of secure attachment with the biological parents prepare the child and adolescent to be able to cope with emotional loss and duress with more stability than the infant or child who has not attained the secure attachment.
Typically we see children who are feeling abandoned when a divorce occurs between biological parents. When the estranged parent does not continue to participate in a consistent parental role, the child often begins to experience the grief patterns of loss. In their perception, the parent has rejected the child in favor of other pursuits. The child will usually blame himself for his lack of being able to spend time with and achieve comfort from the estranged parent. Even when he can verbalize his understanding that “it isn’t my fault,” the child and/or adolescent will quietly harbor the belief that he was not special enough in some way to achieve the full status of being parented by the estranged parent.
A child who is experiencing abandonment will at first be accepting of the change, then become angry, and without intervention, will often withdraw into a type of hopelessness that leaves the child either complacent or continually angry and hostile. This progression of events can be extremely sudden, with only days between the acceptance and then the hopelessness; or, it can be several weeks. The determining factors for the length of duration to have hope are often based upon a) the child’s personality; and, b) the child’s attachment to his parent(s). The children that are most noticeable are those who defy authority and constantly test the limits with continued refusal to follow rules. These children often receive more attention than children do who live with a quiet hopelessness. Some children can hold onto their feelings for up to six years before their behaviors begin to give the signal that they are experiencing the feelings of abandonment. These children will need attachment therapy to successfully work through their feelings and negative behaviors.
Children who experience abandonment can successfully utilize play therapy to achieve emotional security. Parents can be instrumental in providing the emotional stability that the child seeks to feel securely attached and able to cope with the emotional distresses of maturation.
The hopelessness of childhood often turns into anger and defiance by adolescence. These children, who are now adolescents are at higher risk for dropping out of school, drug and alcohol usage and abuse, joining gangs, and becoming sexual active at an early age.
With therapeutic intervention that understands the dynamics of attachment, loss, and related feelings, behaviors, and beliefs, these children and adolescents can achieve emotional safety and security and be successful in their academic and social pursuits.
© BEA Goldfeder