Parental abandonment is probably the most traumatic nonviolent development that can happen to a child. My father barely knew his dad and was shuffled between his mother and stepfather, and grandmother and grandfather during his youth. He was a good guy but a lifelong alcoholic who never really found emotional peace.

Another typical case might involve a fictional preteen girl whose parents divorced when she was preschool age. Dad went through the motions for a couple of years after the separation, reluctantly claiming his court-allotted time with the child.

Then Dad began dating another woman with children, falling off his already weak schedule of visitation with his own child. Mom urged him to strengthen his relationship with their daughter, but he kept tapering it off. In the meantime, Mom remarried, and a stepfather came into the mix.

Ultimately, Dad married the woman with children and stated to his ex-wife, “You have your new family now and I have mine, and it’s best they stay separate.” From that point, he never sees his preteen daughter again.

Differing Effects

In this case, the young girl doesn’t grow up to be an alcoholic. Instead, believing she is worthless to her father, she turns all her pain inward through adolescence and young adulthood. She feels she has little control in her life, especially after likely entering an early marriage with a man with his own childhood trauma. I say likely because as any members of a codependent support group will tell you: Dysfunctional people can pick each other out from opposite ends of a crowded room. They simply attract each other, with the yin and yang aspects of each one’s emotional malaise fitting perfectly together like pieces of a puzzle. In this case, she’s looking for a father figure, he’s looking to be that figure.

But let me clarify. Neither of these fictional people, nor my dad, was born this way. We’re not talking about a congenital mental illness. We’re talking about emotional dysfunction that develops from untreated, deeply repressed childhood trauma. The young lady clearly needs help but refuses to seek it because she fears the explosion of emotional hurt that could result. She’s adopted severely dysfunctional life coping mechanisms that seem normal to her, that help her to continue to repress. In fact, they were necessary to survive in the face of extreme childhood pain, pain that even a loving mother could not help overcome.

But in adulthood, that repressed anguish is causing severe life problems. Ultimately her pain becomes so great she starts gradually pushing it outward, toward the people that love her the most. She has few friends. They got tired of hearing how the world and everyone in it is always against her. She does ally herself with certain older, dishonest, self-dealing family relatives who take manipulative advantage of her emotional weakness and confusion, and reinforce her internal negative forces.

Perpetuating heartache and misery toward people that love her the most is now one thing she can control. Never mind that it makes no sense. Never mind that it harms her and all those around her, even those she purports to still “love.” Her feelings and emotions are colossally confused and unstable after years of repressing the excruciation of abandonment by her father. She’s covered it up by substituting a massive yearslong collection of small slights, some real but most imagined or amplified beyond recognition.

What Can Be Done?

What can be done? Maybe nothing. She might develop physical illness stemming from her emotional pain that ends up incapacitating or killing her. She might end up driving everyone in her life away. She might decide to end it all because the suffering is too great. Or she might mentally snap and cause real damage or physical harm to others.

Or, someone could help. Those around her, those that she still allows into her life, can intervene and aggressively encourage her to get help, emotional therapy. This is not easy. And there is no guarantee. But if you love her, and she still allows you in, How can you do nothing?

My dad was real. The woman is fictitious. But she represents many real victims — created by the many real fathers. ■