Not receiving the necessary psychological or physical protection a child deserves equates to abandonment. Being abandoned tells a child, “You are not important—you are not of value.” Abandoned children then develop a deep sense of toxic shame. They grow up to believe that the world is unsafe, people cannot be trusted, and they do not deserve love and care. Abandoned children often believe that they cannot live up to their parents’ expectations (which are often unrealistic), that they are held responsible for other people’s behavior, and that the parent’s disapproval is of the child’s personhood rather than their actions. Common beliefs include:
- It’s not okay to make a mistake.
- It’s not okay to show your feelings.
- It’s not okay to have needs—everyone else’s needs are more important.
- It’s not okay to have successes—accomplishments are not acknowledged or are discounted.[i]
My wife was abandoned by both her father (whom she only met briefly twice) and by her mother, who quit parenting her at ten years old (she subsequently left home at age thirteen). Hence she had great abandonment issues when we got married. She didn’t trust that I wouldn’t abandon her, and she jealously guarded her heart. Being abandoned again was her greatest fear. She even had a tendency to try to push me to the point where I would leave (probably an unconscious attempt to test my level of commitment). It has taken the better part of three decades of modeling commitment on my part for her to start trusting that I will not abandon her. My level of commitment has at best healed and at worst scarred over the jagged wound of abandonment in her heart.
Our ministry works with hundreds of boys and girls (and adults) who have been abandoned by their fathers. To a person, they struggle with issues like self-esteem, self-confidence, risk-taking, trying new things, fear of failure, and developing intimate relationships.
These problems manifest themselves in several ways. Like girls, who so ache for a father’s love, they willingly accede to the sexual advances of the predatory (and equally fatherless) boys who eagerly take their love before tossing them aside like used tissues. One of the effects of being fatherless is boys trying to feel like a man or cross the threshold of manhood through sexual conquest of girls. The effects of fatherlessness on girls is just as damaging, resulting in the longing and desperate search for affection through sexual encounters with boys. What a damaging collision of the effect of fatherlessness.
One woman said this about her childhood: “I think the biggest wound is abandonment from a father. Mine left when I was fourteen. This was especially devastating because our home was really a ‘happy one.’ We all got along, and there were no signs of problems. But then, midlife crisis hit my father. And he was gone. Everything fell apart.”
For this woman, abandonment has plagued her entire life: “Abandonment has been the greatest issue for me. Divorce and abuse plagued my life. Believing I am worthy and capable of a peaceful life has been a challenge. My core unhealthy belief I came to believe from my brokenness . . . I will never measure up to others expectations, therefore I’m not worthy of love.”
We even see children adopted into loving homes who still struggle with abandonment issues well into adulthood. Kids who are abandoned develop attachment disorders and fear close relationships. Sometimes even with God. If an earthly father (or mother) does not love you enough to stay, how devastating would it be for a heavenly Father to abandon you as well?
[i]Claudia Black, “Understanding the Pain of Abandonment,” Psychology Today, June 4, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-many-faces-addiction/201006/understanding-the-pain-abandonment.
Excerpted from Rick’s newest book, Ovecoming Toxic Parentimng: How to be a good parent when yours wasn’t, by Revell Publishing.