Fear of Abandonment in Childhood Development

Children are often scared of abandonment.

Fear of abandonment is a common, human fear even in adulthood. This fear is one of the greatest fears in childhood, according to Dr. Alice Sterling Honig for Scholastic.com. Children completely depend on parental figures for food, comfort and safety. Childhood loss, such as parental death or divorce, can cause the fear of abandonment to become intense and frequent, and continue on into adulthood. If your child is displaying more anxiety than usual, talk to your pediatrician or a children’s therapist.


Infants display separation anxiety and they become upset when you leave the room even for a moment. Although not all infants develop this anxiety, it usually increases between 6 and 15 months, according to Laura Berk, author of "Childhood Development." Toddlers develop object constancy at approximately 2 or 3 years and can begin to explore while knowing that you are near. However, toddlers and children will still display fear of abandonment and become upset when you leave. If your child has a secure attachment, he will calm down as soon as you return.


If your child does not develop a secure attachment with you, she may have more difficulty with fear of abandonment. Insecure attachments can happen because of different factors, including opportunity for attachment, quality of caregiving, infant characteristics or family structure. Childhood trauma can also cause a lasting fear of abandonment. Losing a parent through death or divorce are obvious causes. However, abuse, neglect, a parent with a substance abuse problem or parents with depression can also contribute to fear of abandonment.


Your child may display a fear of abandonment in different ways, depending on his age. Young toddlers and infants often cry to express themselves. Older toddlers and children are able to express their fears better and negotiate with you about leaving. Babies with insecure attachment can also become overly clingy or unresponsive to you. Psychologists Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main developed the attachment theory and proposed that insecure attachments can include avoidant, resistant and disorganized types. Children with avoidant attachment treat caregivers and strangers similarly. If your child has resistant attachment, he may seek contact with a caregiver but become angry when he gets it. Disorganized attachment children often display contradictory behaviors. Older children and adults may express anger, depression, jealousy or emotional withdrawal.


Comfort your child when he expresses a fear of abandonment. Because the quality of caregiving is linked to attachment issues, being a sensitive caregiver by responding promptly, consistently and appropriately can help ease your child’s fear. Offer support, stability and reassurances for your child. If your child has gone through any type of loss, look into age-appropriate counseling to help her cope. Even if your child does not want counseling, it can be helpful for her to have her own outlet to prevent problems, such as poor self-esteem, depression or anxiety, later in life.