10 signs you had an unhappy childhood, according to psychology

The prevalence of childhood trauma in the United States is truly astounding — roughly two-thirds of children have experienced at least one traumatic event by the time they’re 16. 

From bullying at school to abuse at home, trauma is unfortunately just a part of growing up for many kids, with the effects carrying over into adulthood.

Gauging the impact of childhood trauma can be tricky, as there’s no cut-and-dried cause-and-effect relationship. 

Each person’s reaction to a traumatic event depends on many variables, including whether you had a support system in place to “process” the trauma.

But many kids don’t benefit from that, so it’s important to understand the signs that childhood trauma might still be affecting you.  

To help you narrow it down, here are a few common warning flags here.

1) Post-traumatic stress disorder

Most people are aware of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder that results from unresolved trauma. PTSD is a serious mental health issue that some trauma survivors develop, often long after the fact.

Some of the most common signs of PTSD include:

  • Constantly reliving the event via nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoidance of situations tied to the traumatic event
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Anger issues
  • Trust issues
  • Self-destructiveness or high-risk behaviors

If any of these resonate with you as an adult,  you may be grappling with unresolved PTSD stemming from childhood trauma.

2) Anxiety

Trauma can really mess with your entire worldview. You could feel safe one minute and amid chaos the next, which is most unsettling indeed. 

Imagine watching as a trusted loved one, like a parent, turns into a sadistic monster on a dime. Childhood trauma sends a clear message that your world isn’t a safe place. 

Even as adults, they tend to be hypervigilant, especially towards people they don’t know. Anxious children turned anxious adults avoid unnecessary risks and prefer sticking to the familiar. 

Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, including:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Somatic problems (headaches, muscle tension, GI complaints)
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep problems and nightmares
  • Changes in appetite.

3) Depression

We know trauma can result in anxiety disorders, but it also exacerbates the incidence of depression. 

This is common in childhood trauma survivors. After all, it’s difficult to recall the awful things you were put through as an innocent child.

It’s devastatingly sad when you recall that not only were you betrayed by your caregivers who harmed you, but also by the adults in your life who were aware of the abuse you endured but didn’t protect you from it.

In my experience, that was the hardest pill to swallow of all. 

Depression doesn’t always present in an obvious way. For some folks, depression manifested as bed rotting and a sense of despair. 

For other people, depression may present as irritation and annoyance with everyone in your orbit. 

The most common symptoms of depression include:

  • Low energy
  • Sleep disturbances (oversleeping or insomnia)
  • Changes in appetite (eating too much or not eating at all)
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feeling worthless
  • Apathy
  • Hopelessness regarding the present and/or the future
  • Loss of interest in activities that usually bring you joy.

4) Poor emotional regulation

Another calling card of childhood trauma is problems regulating your emotions. There are many ways that emotional dysregulation can show itself, including:

  • Rage
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Unable to articulate your feelings
  • Withdrawal

5) Self-esteem issues 

It’s common for trauma survivors to suffer from low self-esteem because they often blame themselves for the trauma they endured. 

Years after the fact they might still be asking themselves questions like, why me? What did I do to deserve this? 

Over time, these niggling questions can erode someone’s self-worth. It’s difficult for childhood trauma survivors to have a positive self-image in the wake of their early years. 

This is particularly true if the victim of childhood trauma experiences have been invalidated or even dismissed by the perpetrators or witnesses. 

Gaslighting is the gift that keeps on giving, even decades after the fact.  

6) Physical health challenges

Childhood trauma can negatively impact your mental health, but it can also adversely affect your physical health as well. 

Studies reveal that abused children are at higher risk for serious health issues down the line, such as:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Asthma
  • High blood pressure 
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes

Understanding someone’s history of trauma is necessary to effectively treat them and proactively avoid these issues before they become major problems. 

Suicide attempts are also shown to be considerably higher among adults who experienced childhood trauma.

7) Attachment issues

Another sign that childhood trauma has carried over into adulthood is issues forming attachments.

If you suffered childhood trauma at the hands of a parent or caregiver this may cause you to mistrust others as an adult. This lack of trust can affect your ability and willingness to form healthy relationships with others.

Or, on the other hand, maybe you habitually form unhealthy relationships since that’s what is familiar to you from your childhood. For example, a victim of child abuse may choose an abusive partner later in life.

Children who endured physical, mental, or sexual abuse were more likely to develop attachment styles that were fearful or dismissive. 

Unsurprisingly, kids who didn’t endure childhood trauma don’t have the same difficulty forming secure attachment styles in adulthood as those who did.

So, if you struggle with maintaining healthy relationships as an adult, this could be indicative of unresolved childhood trauma.

8) Dysfunctional relationships

Childhood trauma directly impacts how connected and safe someone feels around others, especially if the trauma involves neglect or violence. 

If children don’t feel loved and supported during their formative years, they’ll probably struggle to achieve any sense of self-worth.

It’s not unusual for adults affected by childhood trauma to forge relationships with people who will perpetuate the cycle of abuse. 

For example, they may choose partners who:

  • Have mental health problems
  • Struggle with substance abuse
  • Are physically abusive
  • Are emotionally unavailable, narcissistic, or cruel.

9) Trust issues

Lack of trust is another unfortunate consequence of childhood abuse or neglect.

Children who don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a supportive and loving environment often feel unsafe and distrustful as adults.

Sometimes, this distrust leads people with childhood trauma to place their trust in those not deserving of it, which of course exacerbates their already shaky self-esteem. 

10) Denial

Just like abused children may deny their ongoing trauma, adults suppress their past experiences. This isn’t deliberate behavior. Denial is a subconscious defense mechanism to shield your mind from the unthinkable. 

Denial can present as justification, asserting that everyone was physically beaten back in the day so it’s no big deal.

It can also manifest as self-blame when the traumatized person figures they deserved their ill-treatment because they were a bad kid.

Final thoughts

Childhood trauma seriously impacts a person’s emotional and physical well-being well into adulthood.

If you have experienced trauma and struggle with the aftermath you don’t need to suffer in silence. Treatment can give you a new perspective on your life and improve your sense of well-being.

Rest assured that feelings about the events you endured years ago were valid then and are valid now.  

No matter how long ago you experienced trauma, it’s never too late to address it by seeking professional help.

Kathy Copeland Padden

Kathy Copeland Padden lives in a New England forest paradise with her cats, kid, and trusty laptop. She has been writing since age 8 and is such a pack rat she can back that up with physical evidence. Music is her solace and words are her drug, so her house is strewn with records and books. Watch your step.

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