Emotional Abandonment

“You did respond–your response was the worst kind–you did nothing” -Balancing Acts: Chalet Girls

I work at a title 1 school, meaning that there is federal funding due to 40% or more of the student population living below the poverty level. Many of the students are refugees, the majority of them are bi or tri-lingual and English is not spoken at home. Trauma is a recurring theme in our students; many of them have broken families, they live in a neighborhood that sees lots of violence, and they don’t have access to a many resources.

One thing that our district is excelling at is using The Zones of Regulation and mindfulness. The kids get to learn about social-emotional awareness and improve their self expression and can tell you what is bothering them and even sometimes, what they are needing.

Over the past few years, there have been a few students who have been clingy, attention seeking, or self deprecating. It was annoying. After getting to know each other I often found that the behavior was caused by their home life. Mom works two jobs, and the kids only see her a few hours a day. Parents turn on the TV and tell the kids to be quiet, there are 3 generations living together and all fighting to be heard over the dinner table; the reasons are extensive and unique to each family. The uniting factor for all of these kids is that they aren’t receiving the attention that they are craving and they can’t move up the hierarchy of needs. The kids are (hopefully) physically safe, but they may need some help from school friends and adult support in order to move on and feel confident about themselves.


As an adult, I try to remember that every behavior has a reason. A child doesn’t throw a chair at a window just because they’re bored. They don’t scream and bite because you asked them to do their work–something triggered them and they’re reacting to make sure that they are physically and emotionally safe. The child might be protecting themselves from getting attached to you because they’re afraid of being abandoned again, they could attack you because at some point something bad happened when they were touched on the arm…every behavior is caused by something in your past.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel

Giving people attention is hard work–it’s an emotional investment. When you love someone give parts of yourself to them. Hate is another strong emotion that involves thinking about someone else, and actively putting energy towards them. Strong emotions lead to actions.

The worst thing you can do for someone who needs help is to not strongly care about the issue. Anything less than hate or love is not enough.

Indifference, or not caring is worse than showing that you give a crap about what the child just did. They figure out that it’s better to be yelled at and have someone actually see you then to be ignored and feel like nothing you do matters.

“I’m glad you’re here, I want you to be safe, and you matter to me” is a message that I try to give the kids whenever we interact.



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