In my last article I had mentioned that often one of the symptoms of autophobia, a fear of abandonment, is that as adults people suffering with this condition may become extremely sensitive to rejection.
This week I would like to focus on adolescents and what occurs when they suffer from autophobia. Adolescents who feel they have been abandoned can become traumatized.
The human nervous system is designed to be finely attuned to danger, and to recognize safety. Yet when children have experienced abandonment, as adults their nervous system can be stuck in the “on” position, constantly responding to fears that no longer exist in their relationship. Abandonment is one of the many fears that trigger danger to the brain, and there is no deeper fear in the human experience than the fear of being abandoned.
We see this in infants, as they begin to explore their new world. They will experience a separation anxiety whenever they are separated from a parent, their attachment figure. As they begin to explore their new world they will often check back to see if a parent or a significant care giver is in sight. If they should lose sight of a parent, their attachment figure, they will no longer feel safe and they will start to cry, terrified to be left alone.
For a child the feeling that someone will always be there, even when they can’t be seen, is a crucial part of any developmental stage. We call this feeling “Object Consistency.”
A lack of object consistency is the inability to remember that people or objects are consistent, trustworthy and reliable. Should this happen in adolescents, then the nervous system can be stuck in the “on” position alerting the neo-cortex that regulates the brain that something is wrong, and to be on the look out for abandonment. The message the brain sends is that you are no longer safe! Find another attachment figure as soon as possible.
When the teenager no longer feels safe, he internally starts to cry, terrified to be alone. The objective consistency connection has been detached, and as with anyone in a crisis their equilibrium does not function as it should. In plain English, this means the teenager can not make rational decisions, and reaches out to anyone who will listen. They look for someone reliable whom they can trust – but who is that person? This need to reach out can cause them to form unhealthy relationships with the wrong people – predators on the street who will take advantage of their innocence. These children will become vulnerable to anyone or anything that will make them feel happy again. We have learned to refer to them as teens at risk, but in reality they are children in crisis.
Case 1: The eighth grade yeshiva boy/girl who looks forward to going to the high school of the school they have been attending since early elementary school. They have developed an Object Consistency, with the principal, teachers, staff, and friends. Then they are told they are not welcome and to please continue their education somewhere else. The child seeks out another school but is not accepted. Often the reason is, “Why should we accept someone who was not accepted by their own school?”
Case 2: The school s/he attended has no high school, and his/her report card is not up to the standard of most high schools, so the only school that has said yes is one considered to be an “alternative” high school.
Case 3: The child is not adjusting well in the high school s/he is presently attending. The administration feels his/her attitude will affect the other students in a negative ways and the child is asked to leave.
In all three cases the fear of abandonment is about to take place. The child’s positive attachment figures, and object consistency with the school no longer exists.
Solution: With professional supervision have teenagers who are role models act as mentors to other teenagers vs. having those on the street doing so. With professional supervision these teenagers can stay in school and stay connected.
Please contact me for more information on how to start a mentorship program or become a teen mentor.
Moishe Herskowitz, MS., LCSW, developed the T.E.A.M. (Torah Education & Awareness for a better Marriage) approach based on 20 successful years of counseling couples – helping them to communicate effectively and fully appreciate each other. As a licensed clinical social worker and renowned family therapist, he developed this breakthrough seminar to guide new couples through easy-to-accomplish steps towards a happy, healthy marriage. Moishe Herskowitz is a Graduate School Professor at the Touro College Mental Health Program. To discuss topics from an article, or ask questions, he can be contacted at CPCMoishe@aol.com or 718-435-7388.