It’s an unfortunate fact of life that we don’t all get the same start.
Childhood is supposed to be a time of fun and discovery, but for far too many people, it’s actually an ordeal.
There can be lots of different reasons for that. I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood myself, but I got off easy compared to some people who suffer neglect, abuse, and other horrifying things no child should have to go through.
And often, people who have that kind of trauma in their past aren’t open to talking about it.
However, there are some subtle behaviors that can give away someone who had an unhappy childhood.
Keep an eye out for these behaviors, as they can help tip you off to someone with a dark past. Knowing what other people have been through can help you understand them on a deeper level and empathize with them.
And we can all use a little more of that in the world.
1) Difficulty trusting others
Think about it. If there’s one person in this life you should be able to trust to always have your back, it’s your parents. For most people, their parents stand as the first and best example in life of true unconditional love.
But it’s not that way for everybody.
Some parents are abusive. Some are neglectful. Some are narcissistic, manipulative, or just uncaring.
And when that happens, it can have a profound effect on their children, even long into adulthood.
Children with unreliable parents learn not to trust them. And that lack of trust is something that can stay with them for a lifetime.
“When we are little, we depend entirely on our caregivers to provide safety and comfort. We rely on them to reflect our emotional states back at us so that we learn what is good, what is bad, what is appropriate, and what is inappropriate,” writes childhood trauma expert Darius Cikanavicius.
When that doesn’t happen, “we become unable to trust that we will be okay if we explore the world because our caregivers did not accurately reflect, comfort, or sustain us.”
Trust issues can arise for lots of different reasons. But having parents you can’t rely on is basically a recipe for trust issues in later life.
2) Relationship anxiety
A bad relationship with one’s parents can have profound effects on your ability to form healthy relationships in later life.
People who were abandoned as kids often develop a deep-seated fear of abandonment. When they get into adult relationships, they are constantly afraid that the other person will abandon them the way their parents did.
This can lead to clingy or controlling behavior that, ironically, can bring about the end of the relationship all by itself.
On the other hand, people who were abandoned or neglected as children may try to defend themselves from the strong feelings a relationship can bring about by remaining distant.
So even if they love their partner, they may be afraid of the strong emotions a relationship involves and try to protect themselves with distance.
Either way, it makes it difficult for people with bad childhoods to have good relationships in later life.
Overachieving is ordinarily seen as a good thing. But in the case of people with difficult childhoods, it can be the opposite.
Some children are brought up to believe that their value comes from their achievement. Often, well-meaning parents will accidentally teach their children that their love is conditional on the child’s doing well in school or achieving a lot in life.
This belief can carry over into a deep desire to always be exceptional, even in adulthood.
This can lead to people pushing themselves too hard and neglecting other aspects of their life as they focus on their career or academic achievements.
Children who were raised this way have a hard time learning to get their value from themselves, and instead have a sometimes damaging focus on external validation.
4) Conflict avoidance
Most people don’t like conflict. But when you’re a kid and you rely on your parents or other caregivers, conflict with those caregivers is never fair and can even be dangerous.
Especially in the case of people who were abused as children, this can lead them to avoiding conflict in later life.
Unfortunately, as counselor Kari Rusnak points out, conflict avoidance doesn’t work.
“Conflict avoidance actually creates much larger conflicts and creates more disconnected feelings in relationships,” Rusnak writes.
“When this happens, it can be hard to feel connected, partially because you aren’t opening up and sharing with your partner, but also because the resentment creates a distance.”
Another sign of someone who has had a tough childhood is that they have a tendency to people-please.
This means that they will often put their own needs and feelings last in favor of other people’s. Because their childhood taught them to be afraid of having other people being angry with them, they carry this behavior into adult life and often suffer for it.
Signs of people pleasing include:
- Wanting everyone to like you
- Over apologizing
- Letting people take advantage of you
- Seeking validation from other people
- Feeling guilty for setting reasonable boundaries
- Following rules
- Holding yourself to unrealistically high standards
As you can probably imagine from this list, trying to make other people happy at your own expense is a one-way ticket to poor mental health.
Although we all want others to like us to some extent, when the need to please others becomes damaging, it’s a good sign of someone who had a tough childhood.
6) Low self-esteem
Our childhood years are crucial to developing a healthy sense of self-esteem and valuing ourselves. So when that process isn’t managed correctly, people can pay for it for their whole lives.
“If you grew up hearing that whatever you did wasn’t good enough, how are you supposed to grow into an adult with a positive self-image?” asks psychologist Suzanne Lachmann.
“If you were criticized no matter what you did or how hard you tried, it becomes difficult to feel confident and comfortable in your own skin later.”
Our relationship with our parents is one of the key ways we develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. So if you know someone who seems to struggle with developing their own sense of self-worth, the answer may lie in an unhappy childhood.
7) Heightened sensitivity to emotions
Children who grow up with emotionally volatile parents often develop a heightened sensitivity to the emotions of others.
After all, a child depends on their parents for almost everything, and so when their parent is in a bad mood, children quickly learn to detect it.
Unfortunately, this can be a hard habit to break. Even when those children grow up and become adults, they may be left with a heightened sensitivity to the emotions of others.
Instead of being a healthy sign of empathy, this can lead to people-pleasing, avoidant behaviors, and other bad coping strategies.
If you know someone who suffers from stress and anxiety when people around them are unhappy, it might be because they had an unhappy childhood.
8) Difficulty regulating their own emotions
The same applies to regulating their own emotions.
The thing is, regulating our emotions and dealing with them in a healthy way is a learned behavior, not something that comes naturally. And our parents are an important part of the process of teaching us how to deal with emotions in constructive ways.
When parents are neglectful, abusive, or emotionally unstable, they don’t pass on this important lesson to their children. And that leads to adults who have a very hard time controlling their emotions.
These people will react emotionally to just about anything. For them, feeling something means it must be true, and they struggle to separate their conscious decisions from the way they feel.
9) Tendency to isolate
By now, if you’ve read this far, you probably have a good understanding of how stressful and anxiety-producing human relationships can be when you don’t have the solid grounding of a happy childhood to teach you how to interact with others.
So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who had an unhappy childhood may have a tendency to isolate themselves from others.
It’s hard dealing with other people’s emotions, and even harder when you never learned how to do it as a child. So often, people with difficult childhoods will try to avoid intimate relationships with other people.
The legacy of a bad childhood
As you can see, a bad childhood can be like a curse that is almost impossible to lift. Legacies of neglect and abuse can continue throughout a person’s adult life, continuing to taint their personal relationships long after childhood itself is over.
Keep an eye out for these signs of someone who had a tough time growing up. Because often, these behaviors point to a difficult past and indicate a need for greater understanding.
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