6 traits of people who grew up in unhappy households, according to psychology

Having grown up in a dysfunctional household, trust me when I say that I know what it’s like to be a teenager who just wants to finally become an adult, free to move out and move on.

Unfortunately, moving out only solves part of the problem.

Many people who grew up in unhappy households soon find out that they carry a lot of unhealed wounds within them, and it is now up to them to fix what they didn’t break.

The good news?

Your healing is entirely within your power, and it is 100% possible to break intergenerational traumas, heal yourself wholly, and perhaps create a new household of your own – one that exudes happiness and love.

The first step?

Recognize your wounds for what they are.

Without further ado, here are the 6 traits of people who grew up in unhappy households.

1) They live in survival mode

Years after I moved out of my parents’ house, I was plagued by anxiety.

I jumped up at every loud sound; I worried about the smallest and most inconsequential things; I was such a chronic overthinker that I simply couldn’t get out of my head and just enjoy the present moment for what it was.

As it turned out, I was still living in survival mode – my nervous system had been so dysregulated growing up that I overreacted to any sign of potential danger long after I became an adult.

As psychologist Annie Tanasugarn PhD, CCTSA, explains, “Children who experience neglect or emotional or physical abuse may grow up living in survival mode, where their inner child has become emotionally ‘stuck’ at the age in which they experienced trauma or chronic trauma.”

She further says, “Kids who experienced chaos and significant trauma often become adults with dysregulated nervous systems.”

“Many may turn to distractions (like gaming, overusing technology or social media, over-exercising, or even pathological behaviors associated with love) as ways of trying to self-soothe and feel validated. Yet, these patterns of escape and avoidance perpetuate trauma; they don’t heal it.”

If you can relate, it’s the first sign you are still suffering from having grown up in a tumultuous and unhappy household – and your body’s nervous system is the proof.

2) They’re people-pleasers

When you grow up around people who are always moody and get into frequent arguments, you soon learn to navigate the shifts in the emotional energy around you so that you caN avoid danger as much as possible.

Then you do everything within your power to manage those feelings of others, be it by carefully choosing the right moment to ask for something you need from your caretakers, never showing any anger or sadness, or always prioritizing the needs of your siblings.

The end result?

You become a chronic people-pleaser.

Your goal isn’t to connect with people on an authentic level; it’s to ensure they like you. It’s not to show up as your true self; it’s to avoid conflict at all costs.

According to Psychology Today, “Seeking approval and validation from others is a hallmark trait of a people-pleaser. This person wants assurance that he matters to the people around him. He doesn’t look for validation from within, he seeks it everywhere else. He wants to be recognized and accepted by everyone. For the most part, if he feels well-liked, he can relax and like himself as well.”

Sounds like you?

You’re not alone. As a nearly recovered people-pleaser, I know just how difficult it is to face conflict, set clear boundaries, and stop caring so much about what other people think of you.

It’s absolutely worth it in the end, though.

3) They struggle to communicate effectively

The hallmark of an unhappy household is poor communication.

That’s why everyone’s so unhappy, after all – they don’t know how to communicate their needs in a productive manner, and so they usually end up having arguments and struggling to get along.

Unfortunately, this means that many people with this kind of history have to learn the ins and outs of effective communication as adults.

And it’s definitely not easy.

From learning how to establish and reinforce your boundaries (without being passive-aggressive) to handling conflict as a team and bringing yourself to voice your true feelings, communication is a battlefield where emotional intelligence and the art of rhetoric are your greatest shields.

And while communication can always be learned – I say that as someone who’s mastered a lot of it by now – the fact that you have to learn it in the first place is a sign your childhood probably wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

4) They have an insecure attachment style

Ah, insecure attachment styles. The hill on which many a relationship dies.

If this is your first time hearing about attachment theory, here’s a quick recap: in psychology, attachment is the bond a child forms with their primary caretaker.

The kind of attachment you form may impact how you connect to your romantic partners (and even friends) in your adulthood.

If your caretaker was inconsistent in their affection toward you, for instance, you may have learned to use any means necessary to get their attention (a sign of an anxious attachment) or you might have learned to only ever depend on yourself and avoid vulnerability (a sign of an avoidant attachment).

Our attachment styles tend to manifest in our close relationships, and if you’re insecurely attached, it’s most probably due to an unhappy childhood.

Luckily, everyone can learn how to culture a secure attachment style within themselves. It does take work, but the value it brings to your life is immeasurable.

5) They feel they’ve missed out on something important

There’s nothing like that longing feeling you get when you see a happy family and think to yourself, “This is really strange.”

It’s a bit like a slap in the face, right?

Growing up, I used to think fun family dinners and trips that didn’t make you want to vanish into thin air were just a thing from movies, a bit like the fake food they put on the tables before filming a breakfast scene.

When I realized that some people actually got to experience that stuff, it was like a void opened up inside me, a kind of FOMO without the FO.

I knew I had missed out on something, and no matter what I did, I would never get it back.

You know what, though?

There’s a silver lining.

You and I may not have grown up in a happy household, but the good news is that we get to create one – whatever that looks like. You can create the home you always wished you had.

There is something incredibly empowering about that.

6) They’re highly resilient

Okay, enough with the negativity. Not all of our traits are bad, after all.

Most of the people I know who had a difficult childhood also make for extremely resilient individuals, and that is something to admire.

Would the world be a better place if we didn’t have to toughen up through negative experiences?


But does that take away from the resilience we fostered nonetheless?

Not at all.

Here are just a few of the positive traits that people who grew up in tumultuous households share:

  • They have a realistic outlook on life and the human psyche
  • They can overcome whatever obstacle is thrown in their way
  • They aren’t easily caught off guard
  • They tend to be highly empathetic
  • They know how to process extremely difficult emotions
  • When life brings them down, they pick themselves back up and keep going

You may have spent your childhood in an unhappy household, but your life is still ahead of you. Your past does not define you.

You are free to choose your own fate.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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