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Proximal Abandonment- The Modern Mental Health Dilemma

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

It goes without saying that abandonment and neglect are terrible things to experience. But we have often placed them a lesser offense than say physical abuse. In 2020 it was reported that emotional damage like emotional neglect can have worse long term effects than even physical abuse of children. As awful as it can be to be beaten yelled at or abused, it is still be worse to be ignored.

Which makes some intuitive sense to those of us with abandonment trauma. At least when someone is screaming at you or spanking you, you know where you belong. Proximal abandonment and neglect leave us with more questions than answers which is devastatingly stressful to humans, especially children.

I’m not talking about leaving your kid on the side of the road, or in a hot car. I’m not talking about a mother leaving her baby on the doorstep of a church because she can’t afford to feed it. I’m talking about a much less dramatic, not made for television kind. Proximal abandonment is much more dangerous to individuals and society if it goes unnoticed.

What is proximal abandonment?

Simply put proximal abandonment is when a child's needs are not met while mom or dad is in the same room. Proximal abandonment is the most common kind of abandonment in modern cultures today and if not watched closely will only get worse.

Moms and dads aren’t leaving their children in hot cars nearly as often as leaving them in the high chair next to them at the dinner table while they work. Mom is click clacking away on her laptop keyboard making sure she doesn’t get fired so the next paycheck will come in on time. She’s a good mom. But what she is not doing is paying close enough attention to the baby. The baby cries and mom distractedly coos and hushes the baby maybe while not even looking at him. A similar thing more or less continues when the kid is a toddler and a preteen into adulthood.

There’re worse ways of parenting, right? Absolutely there are. There are much worse things you could do to a child to cause obvious trauma. But that doesn’t mean this practice isn’t dangerous. I’m not saying parents can’t or shouldn’t work from home. I think the chance to spend more time with your kids is wonderful. What I’m saying is that there are undeniable challenges that come with this blessing. In today’s COVID world where everyone works from home it becomes harder and harder to separate work life from home life.

I mean that’s always been hard. Right? There used to be classes and weekend seminars all about how to leave work at work. And that was back when people had to commute to their jobs. Now with the adjustments the whole world has had to make due to COVID 19 it’s that much harder to truly be present with our kids at home.

Let’s do a little thought experiment

Let’s imagine an entire generation of children who grow up with parents who work from home. That should be pretty easy it’s happening now. For many parents working from home most of us those work hours are not really set in stone. We knock out as much as we can in a few longer sessions. Then we do a little here and a little there. Its much less exhausting this way after all.

But that parent struggles like all of us to control their focus, attention and communication. So, when mom is playing with the kid and the laptop dings, boom! the kid gets dropped and work wins. Hey, you gotta pay the bills.

Ok fine, so the kid had to learn that work is important. Laziness is not a family value you want. Cool, but there’s always more than one thing to be learned from any scenario. So what else might that that child learn?

What do they learn if this happens nearly every day because mom and dad work from home but haven’t figured out how to parcel out their time and attention yet? What he learns is that his emotional connection to his caretakers is less important than the ding of a piece of technology.

Parental emotional connection in all human children is literally life sustaining.

So when its threatened or ignored their body not comprehending the whole story reacts like its going to die. Their body is flooded with stress hormones their heart races and breathing becomes rapid and they don’t even have words to tell you about it.

Remember, children are small people yes. But they don’t have a fully developed brain which means by definition they have immature thought processes. This is why in the mind of a child, everything that happens to a child, is internalized as the child’s fault. They haven’t had the time or developed the hardware to process things like the context of their life. Only the content.

The human’s natural response to nearly everything especially when young is to adapt. After all, in the past it was adapt or die. The Thought experiment generation has two opposing realities its using to predict. The information is contradictory and that’s not ok with the brain. The brain must resolve them one way or another.

One set of experiences carries one message of Mom and Dad love me. They spend time with me feed and clothe me and play with me aka meet my needs. Then there is the opposing experience of Mom and dad routinely don’t meet my emotional needs like when I get dropped to the wayside for the laptop again.

These two opposing experiences make predicting if one will get their needs met very difficult for the child. The child’s immature brain scrambles to make sense of it all. There must be a reason that sometimes I experience one reality. The one version of my parents that meet all my needs and are attentive. and why sometimes I’m completely ignored.

At this point the child has a choice to make.

The assumption

The assumption is either mom and dad don’t love me, are mean bad people. That’s why they don’t care about me. Its almost impossible for a child to believe their parents are evil so we almost all naturally conclude that we the children, are bad bad bad and don’t deserve to have our needs met. Whichever kind of need isn’t getting met with be the kind that becomes unimportant or dangerous. In the case of proximal abandonment, its often largely emotional.

Proximal abandonment is a specific kind of abandonment. If you think logically for just a second it doesn’t take long to realize that its clearly easier to neglect the emotional needs a child has than to neglect feeding your baby, clothing your baby or making sure they get rest.

Proximal abandonment isn’t usually about abandonment of physical needs. Its abandonment of emotional needs.

Its about a very important almost never discussed fundamental psychological need for a healthy mother child relationship. Attunement of the caregiver. But that’s topic for another article. A child who gets fed and clothed but never picked up will literally stress itself to death. It will die from emotional stress caused by lack of physical touch.

This is the child that grows up proud they can survive on crumbs (sheepishly raises hand in admittance of this fact) They/we take pride in taking up the least amount of emotional real-estate in the lives of our friends and family. These kids turn into adults that have needs they struggle to express. Some from fear of backlash if they had an angry parent, some from fear of rejection from say a busy parent, and some from fear of being a burden if they had an emotionally needy parent.

Let me be clear, this is NOT a blame the parent’s scenario. COVID just like War plagues violence and other forms of illness throughout history have been largely if not entirely out of the realm of control of most parents. Most parents are just doing the best they can with what they have. Proximal abandonment has been specifically noted and studied in greater detail in the last 10 years. Which is good because the trend is increasing. The better we understand it the better we can deal with it. I’m hoping that writing this little piece and having conversations on the subject will help to inform parents and children alike of how subtle the mechanisms of secure attachment really are.

You can and probably do love your child with all your heart. That helps of course. But its not enough to raise a healthy well-adjusted securely attached human. Kids are sponges. They don’t “learn” what you teach them. They mimic what is modeled. So for that this generation of young parents y'all are really going to have to pull up your big guy and big girl pants to find ways to control your focus and be aware of the dynamics you are creating with your children. Because those dynamics will be the ones that they repeat with every important person that ever enter their lives. From preacher to professors to lovers and best friends.

Proximal abandonment is very real, extremely sneaky and is much more dangerous than it's name suggests.

Not just for the mental health of these kids but for the future that these children will create for their children. The way a person views their own emotional needs will be the same way they view the emotional needs of others. If thoughts feelings concerns weren’t important enough to get mom and dad off the laptop. When they’re 65 and making policy decisions, how considerate do you think they will be towards the needs of any one? Especially those less privileged than them?

Emotional needs are equally as important as physical needs to a good life.

If you want to raise emotionally secure well-adjusted kind children. You must to learn how to express, and control your emotions. And we all must as a society do our best to help each other out. Parenting is the hardest job in the world and according the the NIH it takes 6.5 adults to raise a healthy child. I’ve been told that I’m “a lot” and its completely true but even I cant be 6.5 people at once.

Maybe that’s partly due to the scale of emotional needs that children have. No one person has the time or energy to give kids all the stimulation they need and want. Kids can do and become anything. They're exploring the world in every way the can to stimulate every part of themselves they can. Any part not stimulated will die away. A sighted infant subjected to a blindfold will shortly become blind due to lack visual stimulation.

Proximal abandonment is created by modern societal structures So, let’s help each other.

Our children and culture need more interactions with our awesome aunties and our gay uncles. They benefit dramatically from stories by their parents’ best friends and from quality time with grandma and grandpa. Our children and their future need us to spend time getting to know our neighbors at least enough so that we don’t have to feel so alone in raising our kids.

I know this is hard because you were more than likely trained by your upbringing to keep your needs to yourself, especially any needs that have much emotional weight. The more needs we have the more vulnerable we are. Needing help can be a HUGE emotional weight for some of us. Especially if we aren’t practiced in asking for it.

It’s my hope that we can come together as friends, neighbors, cousins, acquaintances and be the dynamic stimulating network that kids need. Best I can tell Proximal abandonment will soon be a given for far too many kids without conscious effort on our part. So let’s help each other out some ok? If you have a chance to entertain and interact positively with a kid do it. Play peekaboo on the bus and in restaurants. Some about of table manners should eventually be learned. But maybe instill that lesson after “you are loved and important to me no matter what” is irrevocably understood. Love you all.

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