8 traits of adults who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms as a child

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We all have our ways of dealing with stress and conflict. But are yours healthy?

You might think so, but the truth can be a bit more complicated.

We learn to cope with life’s challenges from a young age, often picking up behaviors and habits from our parents or caregivers. But what happens when those early lessons in coping weren’t exactly…healthy?

The answer? You guessed it…you grow into an adult who may struggle with handling stress, conflict, or adversity in a balanced way.

If you’re nodding along, you’re definitely not alone. Many of us never learned healthy coping mechanisms as kids. And unfortunately, that baggage can follow us right into adulthood.

Today, we’re diving into eight traits of adults who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms as a child.

This might hit close to home, but don’t take it personally. My aim is not to make you feel bad about your past or current situation. Rather, I want to help you identify these traits so you can take steps towards healthier coping strategies.

Let’s dive in!

1) Avoiding conflict at all costs

I remember back in high school, there was a girl who always seemed to have an issue with me. From snide comments to outright confrontation, it was clear we were not going to be best friends.

But instead of addressing the issue, I would go out of my way to avoid her. I’d take longer routes to class and even switch lunch tables just to steer clear of conflict.

As an adult, I realized this wasn’t just about a high school bully. It was a pattern in my life.

Whenever there was a chance of conflict, I’d head in the opposite direction. If a friend upset me, I’d swallow my feelings instead of confronting them. If my boss gave me unfair criticism, I’d just smile and nod instead of defending myself.

Avoiding conflict is a common trait among adults who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms as a child. It’s an instinctual response; if you can avoid the cause of stress or discomfort, you won’t have to deal with it.

But as we all know, avoidance rarely solves anything.

2) Struggling with emotional regulation

Did you ever have one of those days where everything just seems to go wrong? The bus is late, you spill coffee on your shirt, your boss hands you a pile of work at 4:59 pm…you know the drill.

I had one of those days recently and it was like I was on an emotional roller coaster. One minute I was fuming with anger, the next I was on the verge of tears. My emotions were all over the place and I struggled to keep them in check.

Struggling with emotional regulation is another sign that you might not have learned healthy coping mechanisms as a child.

Instead of responding to stress in a balanced way, your emotions may swing from one extreme to another. It’s chaotic, exhausting, and quite frankly, not a healthy way to live.

3) A tendency to isolate themselves 

It’s a common misconception that introverts prefer to be alone because they dislike social interaction.

Here’s the thing — in reality, introversion and isolation are two very different things.

Introverts recharge by spending time alone, but they still value their relationships and social connections. On the other hand, isolation is a complete withdrawal from others, often driven by fear, anxiety, or a sense of not fitting in.

Isolation can be a coping mechanism learned in childhood. Children who feel overwhelmed by their environment or who experience trauma may retreat into themselves as a way to feel safe.

Unfortunately, this behavior can carry over into adulthood, where it can lead to loneliness and even depression.

According to a report by the CDC, social isolation can have serious health implications. It found that isolation increases the risk of inflammation at the same level as being physically inactive in adolescence.

And in adulthood, the effect is comparable to the risks posed by high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking for cardiovascular diseases!

It’s clear that this coping mechanism isn’t just unhealthy – it’s downright dangerous.

4) People-pleasing

When you think of a people-pleaser, you might picture someone who’s always cheerful, always willing to lend a hand, always putting others first. It sounds like a pretty admirable trait, doesn’t it?

But behind that constant drive to please others often lies a deep-seated fear of rejection or criticism.

Growing up, we might have learned that being loved or accepted was conditional on our behavior. If we were “good,” we were praised. If we misbehaved, we were criticized or ignored.

This can lead to a pattern of people-pleasing behavior in adulthood. We become so focused on earning approval from others that we neglect our own needs and feelings.

And that’s a definite no-no. Being kind and considerate is one thing, but when it comes at the expense of your own well-being, it becomes a problem.

It’s like trying to fill up everyone else’s cup while yours remains empty. In the end, you’re left feeling drained and unfulfilled.

If this is an area you struggle with, repeat this to yourself: it’s okay to prioritize yourself sometimes. You deserve just as much respect and care as anyone else.

However, to break free from this pattern, you’d have to do away with this next thing…

5) Struggling to say “no”

This one really hits home for me. I used to be the kind of person who would always say yes, even when I was stretched to my limit.

A friend needed a favor? Sure, I’m there. My boss asked me to take on another project? Absolutely, no problem. The word “no” seemed to be missing from my vocabulary.

Why was saying no so hard for me? It all goes back to my childhood. Like many others, I was taught that saying no was rude or selfish.

So I grew into an adult who felt obligated to say yes, even when it meant sacrificing my own time and energy.

But here’s the thing: saying no isn’t about being selfish or rude. It’s about setting boundaries and respecting your own limits. As I mentioned earlier, if something comes at the expense of your own well-being, it becomes a problem.

It may be hard to do so at first, but learning to say no can be incredibly empowering. It signifies that you value your own time and well-being just as much as others’.

And trust me, that’s a vital part of learning healthy coping mechanisms as an adult. You matter; don’t let anyone else convince you otherwise — not even yourself.

Which brings me to my next point….

6) A tendency to self-sabotage

It might sound strange, but self-sabotage is actually a pretty common trait among adults who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms in childhood. It’s like there’s this voice in your head that tells you, “You’re going to fail anyway, so why bother?”

So, instead of risking failure or rejection, you might find yourself intentionally creating obstacles or subconsciously undermining your own efforts.

This behavior can stem from a variety of childhood experiences. For instance, if success was met with criticism or jealousy, you might have learned to associate achievement with negative consequences.

As an adult, this can translate into a pattern of self-sabotage.

The key to overcoming this trait is to recognize it for what it is – a learned behavior that can be unlearned. With time and effort, you can replace self-sabotage with healthier coping strategies that support your growth and success.

7) Struggling with intimate relationships

How about this — have you ever found yourself pushing people away when they get too close? Or do you find it hard to trust others?

Struggling with intimate relationships is another common trait among adults who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms as kids.

As children, we learn about relationships from the adults around us. If those relationships were unstable, abusive, or neglectful, we might carry those patterns into our own adult relationships.

This can lead to fear of intimacy, trust issues, or a tendency to push people away.

But remember, your past doesn’t have to define your future. It’s never too late to learn new ways of relating to others and fostering healthier relationships.

8) Feeling responsible for others’ emotions

Growing up, I had a friend whose mother would often blame him for her mood swings. If she was upset, it was his fault for not being considerate enough. If she was happy, it was thanks to his good behavior.

As a result, my friend grew up feeling responsible for managing his mom’s emotions.

Feeling responsible for others’ emotions is a heavy burden to carry, and it’s a common trait among adults who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms as a child.

It can lead to constant anxiety and a tendency to prioritize others’ feelings over your own.

Real talk — you are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings but your own. It’s important to empathize and be considerate, but ultimately, each person is responsible for managing their own emotions.

It’s not your job to keep everyone else happy at the expense of your own well-being.

Final thoughts

Do any of these traits resonate with you? If yes, don’t worry. While they may be deeply ingrained in you, let me assure you, it’s never too late to learn new ways of coping with stress and adversity.

You have the power to break these patterns and create a healthier, happier life for yourself. The fact that you’re here reading this and hopefully acknowledging the need to break free means you’re off to a great start! 

Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley, a London-based writer, is passionate about helping others discover the power of self-improvement. Her approach combines everyday wisdom with practical strategies, shaped by her own journey overcoming personal challenges. Eliza's articles resonate with those seeking to navigate life's complexities with grace and strength.

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