Ah, the honeymoon stage. Everyone’s favorite part of a relationship. When the red flags still look pink, the future looks bright, and nothing can go wrong.

And then there’s the next stage, when real life kicks in. 

Healthy relationships typically establish boundaries at this point to make space for things that come up—family issues, work stress, and money problems. For people with fear of abandonment, this is the perfect time to leave and start it all over again.

Fear of abandonment typically begins in childhood, in the aftermath of a traumatic loss. We define it as anxiety characterized by the intense fear of losing one or multiple loved ones.

If left untreated, it can last a lifetime. Identifying this fear early will help in the long run.

Why Catching It Early-On Is Important

In the world of psychology, we subscribe to the belief that our fears as children blueprint the actions we take as adults. If a child learns that their best coping strategy is to block everything out and run away, why would they try something else as an adolescent or adult?

Here’s the thing: like in our honeymoon example, not being able to cope with this fear can ultimately lead to it coming true. You end up abandoning the person before they can do it to you. Later, we’ll talk about how DBT-C as a family can help combat cyclical self-sabotage.

How To Know If My Child Has a Fear of Abandonment

Several things can spark this fear in children, but the most common triggering events are the death of a loved one (typically a caregiver) or divorce. Parents who are physically present but emotionally distant can cause this as well.

It’s common for children with fear of abandonment to express worry whenever they’re left alone. While separation anxiety is normal for all toddlers, it typically resolves itself around age 3. If the symptoms remain severe or continue after this age, it could be time to consider getting help.

Ask yourself…

  • Does your child regularly act out or have a breakdown when they’re dropped off at school?
  • Do they cry fearfully when being put to bed alone? 
  • Do they suffer from frequent illness with no apparent cause?
  • Do they say things that indicate low self-esteem? 
  • Do they often isolate themselves at home?

Adopted children can also suffer from this anxiety if they see themselves as abandoned. They may appear angry, withdrawn, sad, spacey, or experience nightmares and insomnia. In severe cases, children are at risk of eating disorders, addiction, aggression, and self-harm if left untreated. 

What Does DBT-C Bring to the Table?

Odds are, if your child is acting aggressively out of fear of abandonment, it’s probably because that’s their best way to deal with their emotions right now. It’s important to teach them that there are other tools we can use, and that’s the primary goal of DBT.

DBT-C uses the same model and strategies as normal DBT with tweaked delivery to accommodate the developmental state of the child. DBT-C is more family focused, so the family can learn every distress tolerance skill the child is learning as well. This will help establish a more stable, consistent environment of expectations around the child.

The general “curriculum” looks like this:

GOAL ONE: Decrease the risk of mental illness in the child’s future by…

    1. Addressing the life-threatening behaviors of the child
    2. Addressing the therapy-destroying behaviors of the child
    3. Addressing the therapy-interfering behaviors of the parents
    4. Practicing parental emotion regulation
    5. Practicing effective parenting techniques

GOAL TWO: Work to improve the parent-child relationship.

GOAL THREE: Target the child’s presenting symptoms and behaviors by…

    1. Addressing risky and aggressive behaviors
    2. Addressing quality-of-life interfering problems
    3. Starting distress tolerance skills training
    4. Addressing the therapy-interfering behaviors of the child

Outside of therapy, parents should model behaviors they learn as often as possible so their child can practice regulating their own emotions, too.

With a team behind them showing support, children can overcome their fear of abandonment and move on to live healthy, fulfilling lives. Connect with one of our counselors today to get your journey started.

Click here for more on DBT for Children.