Abandonment Treatment for Teenagers

Treatment for Teenagers with Abandonment Issues

Abandonment Issues Treatment

October 22, 2019

A large percentage of adolescents and teenagers admitted to Elk River Treatment Program are exhibiting maladaptive behaviors that are generated by feelings of abandonment.

It’s difficult to explain a child’s feelings of abandonment to loving parents who believe they have provided everything for their child, but sometimes what a child knows and what a child feels are two very different emotions.

Counselors at Elk River Treatment Program urge parents not to become defensive and try to understand that feelings of abandonment are most often related to loss. Examples of physical abandonment include the loss of a parent, grandparent or sibling due to death. Emotional abandonment might be due to marital separation, divorce or a demanding job.

Abandonment as it relates to loss

The adolescent counselors at Elk River Treatment Program stress that abandonment can be both an event and a feeling. It is among the core issues identified in Elk River’s treatment philosophy. Core issues generate feelings (real or imagined) and a young person’s lack of maturity to determine the difference can drive maladaptive behaviors. Often parents, teachers and other caregivers only see the behaviors. It is difficult to determine what is causing the behavior because the child cannot articulate it. Also confusing is society’s stereotyping of teenagers as sullen, unpredictable and more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs during these formative years.

At Elk River Treatment Program, maladaptive behaviors are treated as symptoms of an underlying problem. It is our goal to help a child discover his or her core issue(s) and eventually learn better way to cope.

Other examples of core issues include abuse, loss, boundaries, physical differences – all possibly connected to a painful event that the child had no control over, could do nothing to change, and resulted in significant loss.

What generates feelings of abandonment?

According to Penny Baker, LPC-S, it is natural for all of us to avoid painful emotions. “No one wants to feel them, and we do some pretty fancy manipulation of our thinking to avoid them,” Baker explained. She is the Director of Clinical Services at Elk River Treatment Program and supervises other counselors who are working toward advancing their licensure.

“Pain and loss hurts, and like hunger tells us it’s time to eat, painful feelings tell us it’s time to do something with them. Children don’t always have the tools to do that,” Baker said.

For example, it is normal for a child to be confused, sad, and anxious when his parents go through a divorce. Tracing back before the divorce, it is likely the child felt alone and out of control if his parents were arguing excessively. When parents argue, a child experiences a loss of the parents’ availability, and the stress generated is negatively affecting the child outside of his responsibility and control.

If a child is not dealing with these feelings directly and his parents are unavailable to support them because of their own marital problems, the child may express these feelings by acting out in anger, withdrawing, or other unhealthy behaviors. The behavior is child’s way of communicating to adults that something is wrong, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

Through traditional talk therapy and group therapy throughout the day, clients at Elk River have the opportunity to experience similar stressors that occur in their home environment. Elk River’s support staff is carefully recruited and trained to work with adolescents and teens ages 12 – 18. Clients are supervised around-the-clock.

Should a teaching moment present itself, clients can stop in the moment with the supervision of a group leader, circle up with their group, and identify what they’re feeling. Once identified, they can start to peel back the layers and uncover where that emotional pain might be coming from. Teens can process these discoveries with experienced counselors and their group in real time, rather than wait for the formal therapy session.

The last stage in this process is finding positive coping skills to replace maladaptive behaviors.

Weekly parent workshops are held to help parents understand the process and work through their own issues while their child is in residential treatment.

Treatment goals when addressing abandonment

When abandonment is identified as a core issue, what is our treatment goal?

Emotional pain must be directly felt and allowed to be properly grieved in order to be resolved, and resolving the pain is the end goal so that it becomes manageable.

Forms of abandonment

Parents don’t want their children to be unhappy, so they become fixers. Not allowing a child to suffer negative emotions can create emotional abandonment. The message a child is getting is “my parents are uncomfortable when I feel bad. I don’t need to share these feelings with them.” Sometimes parents are so focused on providing what they view as the necessities for their children, they overlook the emotional wellbeing that a child needs for proper development.

This would be considered emotional loss when a nurturing environment is absent during those critical early years of emotional development.

Death, divorce and actually walking out on the kids are obvious abandonment scenarios, but it also includes:

  • A lack of appropriate supervision
  • Inadequate nutrition, clothing, housing, heat or shelter
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse

Children are totally dependent on caretakers to provide safety in their environment. If they don’t, the child grows up believing the world is an unsafe place, that people are not to be trusted, and that they do not deserve positive attention and adequate care.

Emotional abandonment has little to do with proximity. It pertains to emotional needs not being met. Children need to be heard and understood. They need to be nurtured, appreciated and valued.

If an individual was not nurtured as a child, it is difficult to nurture their own child.

Parents practicing emotional abandonment might:

  • Stifle their children’s emotional expression
  • Ridicule their children
  • Hold their children to standards that are too high
  • Rely too heavily on children for their own sense of worth
  • Treat their children as peers

Sometimes children feel they cannot live up to the expectations of their parents, which may be unrealistic. Children may be blamed for the actions of their parents. Sometimes disapproval is aimed at their core identity rather than a particular behavior. An example would be telling a child he is worthless when he does not do his homework, or he is never going to be a good athlete because he missed the final catch of the game.

As a result, young people may “hide” a part of themselves, believing it is not okay to make a mistake, show feelings, have needs or experience success.

Signs of abandonment issues

Some concerning behavior that parents might see when their child is suffering from abandonment issues can include:

  • Clinging or separation anxiety – needing constant reassurance
  • Worrying or panic
  • Fear of being alone
  • Getting sick more often due to stress
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Feelings of worthlessness

These are just some of the behaviors exhibited by a child with abandonment issues. Left unchecked, symptoms may grow into a long-term mental health issue.

By the time abandoned children reach the early school years, ages 6 - 9, researchers found they can no longer deny the reality of their situation and may exhibit:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Poor school performance
  • Difficulties with classmates
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Lack of self-worth

Those same feelings become more pronounced around age 13 -18. Teens struggling with abandonment issues worry about the future, may skip school, become aggressive, isolate or start using alcohol or drugs. The teen also may withdraw from all relationships, including those with friends, family and classmates, and become extremely dependent on one parent. Some react by developing unhealthy coping mechanisms with food or sex, occasionally to the point of addiction.

Other signs to watch for include trouble sleeping, crying, aggression, deep anger and resentment, feelings of betrayal, difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, and problems with friends or at school.

Children and teenagers who have lost a parent, whether by divorce or death, are at “a high risk for depression,” according to study reported by the National Institutes of Health. They are likely to have heightened anxiety about being abandoned, therefore threatening the quality of their relationships with caregivers, peers and romantic partners later in life.

An American Federation of Teachers study found that students who have lost a parent exhibit:

  • Difficulty concentrating in class (observed by 87 percent of teachers)
  • Withdrawal/disengagement and less class participation (82 percent)
  • Absenteeism (72 percent)
  • Decrease in quality of work (68 percent)
  • Less reliability in turning in assignments (66 percent)

When loss happens frequently, they internalize intense fear, one therapist found. Some children who fear or experience abandonment can develop separation anxiety disorder.

Adolescents with separation anxiety may:

  • Engage in reassurance or checking (e.g., text messages, GPS tracking)
  • Decline invitations to hang out with peers in order to stay home
  • Refuse to go on overnight school trips or functions
  • Have difficulty going to or staying at school all day
  • Demonstrate resistance to opportunities for independence, such as declining to go away to college and staying near home instead

How to help your teen overcome fear of abandonment

Some strategies for helping young people with fear of abandonment include:

  • Seek professional help
  • Encourage them to express their feelings
  • Tell them it’s okay to feel the way they do
  • Reassure them that you love them

When parents recognize the signs and get professional help and therapy, teens can overcome their abandonment issues to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults.