Children’s Fear of Abandonment

I had read in an article about why time-outs are bad something that struck me: Children have a universal fear of abandonment. I have dealt with this issue with my 4 year old so. many. times. I was very pleased to learn that this is something that just seems to be “in” children. I am collecting the unexpected ways that this shows up when you parent, and how you sometimes have to tread carefully to avoid flare-ups.

Garbage cans, drains, give away piles

One of my most heartbreaking moments as a parent is when my son, then a toddler,¬†noticed the water draining in the bathtub. I was excited to teach him the idea of “draining,” and how the water was going away, down a pipe. As the water went down, he said, “And now John will go away.” Oh my!!! Tears! Sad tears!

We went through and Konmari’d our house in 2015, which is to say we got rid of anything that did not “spark joy” for us. We went to Goodwill probably about 15 times, taking 30-45 bins worth of stuff. My son, who was 3, told us once, “I had a nightmare that you dropped me off at Goodwill.” These moments kill me.

It is so important to deal with things that “go away” from your house. I saw on Sesame Street once how they had a give away pile and made sure to tell one of the kid puppets getting the lesson that he would not be given away. This issue of abandonment is so big, it is worth it to preface to the child that they will not be given away whenever explaining drains, garbage cans, and the like.

Minor separations

We were out at a bookstore once, and I took my 4 year old to the bathroom. Two other adults were with us, who left towards the front entrance. When my son got out of the bathroom, he bolted to find the other adults. This left most adults in a panic as he ran through the store.

Several weeks later, he broke out into tears. He said, “Do you remember when [the two other adults] left me behind?” He had been full of fear of abandonment when he didn’t see them upon returning from the bathroom.

Now if we have a brief separation, we agree on a meet up place. The fear of abandonment is that deep.


I have read before that the most traumatic part of the day for a child is when you leave their side at bedtime. Certainly parents have had bedtime struggles where a child keeps getting out of bed. You may have seen on Supernanny how she keeps dragging the kid back to bed and sitting outside of the room door so they can’t get out, until they just get used to it. This may have application in some situations, but I would encourage any parent to first see if there is an unmet need of the child. The very first place I would look is to food and mealtimes. When we switched over to routine meal times, where food is served family style at regular, predictable times, our bedtime struggles were greatly relieved. But another potential unmet need may be that the child needs connection.

Bedtimes can be a struggle and in getting the child to do as asked, a parent may fall into a trap of, “If you don’t [brush your teeth, go potty, whatever], I am going to leave.” It can be super rough to tough it out with a child who is being uncooperative, but what should never, ever be compromised is connection right before they go to bed. Dr. Ginott describes how parents need to be there to talk through any anxiety or fears a child has, so they can lull to sleep. We do a happy/sad part of the day every single night. I will never not do this. No lectures allowed at this time, just a genuine discussion of emotions! I always end the conversation with, “I had a great day with you. I hope you get good sleep.” I have not had a problem with my preschooler creeping out of bed since doing this.

Hellos and Goodbyes

It is of no surprise to any parent that hellos and especially goodbyes can trigger fear in children. Parents first drop off at school can be filled with anxiety. Children panic when their mom tries to slip away for an appointment or a much needed date night.

I make it a point when saying Hello or Goodbye to my children that we always connect. So it’s, “Hello! It’s nice to see you!” It’s never “Hello. Did you dress properly today? Did you behave at school?” Or when we say goodbye, it’s “I hope you have a fun time!” It’s never, “Be sure to behave!” All of the coaching and guidance stuff can come at other times. At these critical hi/bye times, it is important to connect.

Who Helps Them

So, I’ve yet to figure this one out. My preschooler will only let me, mommy, help him at certain times, especially to get in and out of his car seat. One time I just left, with his sister, to let his dad do it. Partially, I was tired of this happening and partially I wanted to see what happened. My son, in hysterics, said, “Mommy is leaving me!”

There is clearly some kind of fear of abandonment at play. We’ve tried many things to try to get him to let his dad to help to no avail.

There are many other situations that this may apply, such as moving to a new house. I am also very careful in how I speak. I never will say something like, “I’m leaving now! I’ll leave without you if you don’t hurry up!” Never. Ever. The fear of abandonment is so big, this is never something to say. I am completely aghast when I hear stories of parents dropping their kids off at the side of the street as a form of punishment.

Parenting is through thick and thin. You get to be there for your kid, not abandoning them, even when they are annoying, crying, grumpy, uncooperative, doing bad at school, going through puberty, and so on. This issue has been a mystery to me for some time: Why would nature make children so frustrating at times, which makes parents want to turn away, when what the children need is for parents to come closer. It truly highlights the issue that parents cannot just go with their instincts but must have a principled, values-based approach to what they do.

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