Childhood is such a fragile time. We get all sorts of experiences, and while we’re not aware of it at the time, those experiences can play a huge role in whether or not we grow up to be confident adults.
This explains why some people grow up to be strong and bold, while others find it hard to believe in themselves. Even though they may no longer remember why.
So, with that in mind, here are 11 childhood experiences that people who lack self-confidence often had. Hopefully, it can help us understand them and figure out how to support them better.
Let’s dive in!
1) Parental abuse or neglect
Let’s get the biggest one out of the way. Parental abuse and neglect have tremendous, far-reaching effects that last well into adulthood.
People who went through this as a child often carry deep emotional scars, probably the deepest of which is believing that they’re not worth loving.
Psych Central encapsulates this so well:
“How we see ourselves is significantly shaped by our early environment and our relationships with our primary caregivers.”
In other words, if you grow up around people who treat you badly, you might internalize the negative treatment as a reflection of your own value. Which then leads to persistent feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
Healing from parental abuse or neglect is a long and challenging journey. It’s so important to seek support to unlearn all those wrong childhood messages and relearn your true worth.
2) Overly critical parents
Actually, it doesn’t even have to be outright abuse/neglect. Even just being around criticism all the time can rob us of self-confidence at an early age.
The human brain is so malleable, especially in children.
Think of it like a blank slate – if people only ever scrawled negative words and graffiti on yours and told you to read it every single day, your brain will come to accept it as truth.
You grow up not believing you’re capable and worthy. That no matter what you do, you’re just not “good enough”.
3) Having to meet too-high expectations
Speaking of not being “good enough”, did you ever have to be any of these:
- The perfect, well-behaved child
- A straight-A student
- The star athlete or performer
- The uber-responsible older child
- Your parent’s financial or emotional support
People who went through situations like these know the struggle of meeting high expectations. And because they can’t, they end up believing that nothing they do will ever rise to that standard.
Looking back at my childhood, I see so many things that developed in me a chronic feeling of inadequacy. I had to behave well at all times, and if I ever got a B in a test, I’d go home with a feeling of dread.
I know that my parents were well-meaning and merely wanted to push me to be the best I can be. But it did lead me to become a perfectionist who always feels, yeah, not good enough.
4) Struggling in academics
On that note, doing poorly in school can also lead people to believe they aren’t capable.
Back in high school, I had a friend who really struggled in school, even if she did her best. She’d get F after F, or on good days, a C. So, it was common to hear her saying things like:
- “I’m so stupid!”
- “I can’t do this…”
- “God, I just can’t do anything right!”
Sometimes, she’d say it laughingly, like a joke, but other times, I could see just how low she felt.
Even now that we’re grown-ups, she still says things like this. I still see her being afraid to take risks because she’s sure that she’ll mess up.
5) Always getting sick
Similarly, people who were always sick when they were kids could grow up lacking self-confidence.
You see, frequent illness in childhood often means that they miss out on a lot of activities that help build up self-confidence.
For example, just being able to go to school regularly and interacting with peers develops socio-emotional skills.
Just participating in sports or physical activities develops a sense of competence, resilience, and belonging.
Just being able to handle tasks and challenges on your own develops independence and self-reliance.
Unfortunately, kids who are often sick don’t get to enjoy these benefits as much as a healthy child would.
What’s more, if their illness affects the way they look, they could struggle with body image issues as well.
6) Overprotective parents
What about being treated like a fragile package that needs to be encased in bubble wrap? Does that make you more confident or not?
Definitely not. People who were raised by overprotective parents grow up lacking a number of things that are crucial for developing self-confidence:
- Problem-solving skills
- Risk-taking ability
- Trust in their own judgment
- Coping mechanisms
Since there was always someone else making decisions and managing their life for them, they never got the chance to figure things out on their own, make mistakes and bounce back from them.
Being able to do all of that is a huge part of what makes us more confident. So if someone’s always stepping in for us, we never get to find out just how capable and resilient we are.
Plus, how can we have a sense of accomplishment if it’s not really ever OUR accomplishment, right?
7) Not fitting in at school
The stuff of practically every teenage coming-of-age movie – feeling like an outsider.
We teach our kids that it’s okay to be different or not be part of a crowd, but we also can’t ignore the fact that fitting in is a major concern for them, if not the ONLY concern.
And understandably so. Studies show that being able to fit in at school makes students more likely to:
- Participate in school activities
- Have friends
- Perform better academically
- Have good mental health
…all of which sets them up to feel more confident about themselves.
8) Getting picked last
This is closely connected to my previous point. People who were often picked last had that feeling of being an outsider, too.
I remember back in grade school (actually, all the way to high school), I was always getting picked last for teams.
Not just sports teams, but also for games like dodgeball, tag and The Boat Is Sinking…and even for class group projects!
I could console myself with the thought that I was skinny, slow, and a daydreamer, and my peers wanted fast and alert kids on their team. On a rational level, I get it.
But even so, I can’t deny that it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. I did have friends, but even they would pick me last – and that was a clear message that I just didn’t have what it took for the matter at hand.
9) Being bullied
There is perhaps no heavier evidence that one is considered an outsider than getting bullied.
Being singled out and picked on makes victims feel like they are less worthy than others. They may even get to thinking, “There must be something about me that ‘deserves it’”.
It truly messes with a child’s self-perception and self-confidence. They become harsh on themselves and feel so bad that they may keep themselves isolated.
They could have the best parents in the world, but if they got bullied in school, they carry that around with them for a long time. Heartbreakingly, some people never even recover.
10) Being compared to siblings or peers
If you’ve ever watched the TV show Friends, you’d know how Monica Geller struggled with the fact that her brother Ross was their mom’s favorite.
It’s funny because Monica is beautiful, competent, and quite the perfectionist. Yet she had confidence issues whenever their mom was around, simply because she was always being compared to Ross on some level.
That’s how kids who grew up being compared to their siblings or peers feel. They might be incredibly capable and successful in various aspects of their lives, but the shadow of comparison never really goes away.
The childhood message has been internalized: “[Insert name] is always better than you. Why can’t you be more like them?”
Unfortunately, that message appears in certain behaviors they might do as adults:
- Seeking approval from others
- Overcompensating with achievement to overcome the feeling of inferiority
- Struggling to appreciate their strengths (because it’s always “less than others’ strengths”)
For those who grew up being compared to others, it’s a struggle to separate their own worth from how they stack up against others. There’s always an imaginary ruler telling them that they don’t measure up.
11) Growing up poor
There are lots of success stories of people who rose from rags to riches. Why are stories like that so celebrated?
Well, it has a wow factor, really. Because poverty comes with so many gaps to hurdle.
Take a look at this statement from Compassion.com:
“Poor children experience a disproportionate amount of neglect and social deprivation thanks to poverty. They are less likely to feel valued and loved. They often have lower self-esteem, less self-confidence, and greater incidences of mental health problems. They feel unsafe, marginalized, exceedingly vulnerable, and constantly threatened.”
Think about those gaps like wide ravines between cliffs – you’d need Olympic strength to hurdle each one of them!
People who grew up in such an environment struggle with confidence for so many reasons. There’s the shame and social stigma, stress and anxiety, health issues due to lack of healthcare…
It can all feel like you’ve been doomed to fail from the beginning. When there’s so much lack in your life, it’s hard to feel like good things can happen. You grow up believing that success is not in the cards for you.
That’s why it’s always a big deal when someone climbs out from the pit and makes it all the way to the top!
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