'Abandoned child mode'

Although I don't do schema therapy, my amazing friend Kathryn has taught me a lot about this type of therapy. There are some concepts from schema therapy, such as 'abandoned child mode', which resonate deeply with me and have helped me with managing my BPD.

Before I start this post, I would like to say that although Kathryn is one of my best friends and one of the kindest, loveliest people I know, she is also an incredible artist. Her artwork articulates what life with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder can be like with such clarity.

Looking at Kathryn's artwork makes me feel like some of the most painful parts of my life are being validated because I relate so much to her images. It is through Kathryn that I learnt about a specific part of schema therapy known as 'abandoned child mode'.

Put simply, schemas are patterns of thought, behaviours, feelings and ways of relating to oneself, others and the world. Schema therapy works with the idea that when a child's emotional needs are met then they will go on into adulthood with healthy schemas. Conversely, if a child's emotional needs are not met, then they might develop unhealthy schemas.

black and white drawing of a terrified person

Many people with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder have been through all sorts of very difficult experiences in childhood, including abuse, neglect and trauma of all kinds. Many people with this diagnosis didn't have the understanding or emotional support that they needed during their childhood.

Schema therapy involves understanding what happened to an individual in order for them to develop certain schemas. This therapy understands that different schemas can be activated at at times which can cause an individual to think, feel and behave in a certain way.

One such schema is called the abandoned child schema. It is sometimes known as vulnerable child or abused child too. This is one of the most painful schemas to have developed and to have activated. When the abandoned child schema is activated, then an individual will feel, think and behave like an abandoned child. This means that a person might become very frightened, feel helpless, alone or completely unable to cope.

For example, if you were to see me enter abandoned child mode, you would probably see me sobbing on the floor, believing that I have been abandoned by someone I love. I would be in experiencing the sharpest grief, piercing terror and an overwhelming sense of loss. I would believe I was going to abandoned. I might show signs of helplessness and look vulnerable- unable to look after myself and even begging for help.

Alternatively, when in abandoned child mode I might be shaking and crying asking over and over again 'do you love me?' or repeating 'do you love me?'. My body might be racked with anxiety and sadness. I probably can't stand. I might be rocking back and forth. I probably can't look anyone in the eye because I am so ashamed of how vulnerable and lost I feel.


When I learnt about abandoned child mode, it made me understand a little more about what was happening to me when I was having what I have often called 'an episode', or more recently, a meltdown'. Abandoned child mode is terrifying not only because of how scary it is to believe you really are abandoned and will not survive that abandonment, but also because this mode can feel so exposing.

Numerous times I have been exploited and even emotionally abused in the cruelest of ways when I have been in abandoned child mode. I firmly believe that people who experience abandoned child mode need (and deserve) to be treated with the utmost respect, kindness and sensitivity, just as a terrified child should be.

Do you have experience of abandoned child mode? What is your experience? Has schema therapy helped you?

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​© Talking About BPD

Rosie Cappuccino 2020

Please note that this site is not a substitute for professional medical/mental health advice.