8 ways an unhappy childhood can still affect you today, according to psychologists

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Have you ever stopped to wonder why certain things trigger you more than others, or why you react to situations in ways you can’t quite understand? 

It might surprise you to know that a lot of times, this has to do with stuff that happened when you were a kid. 

Psychologists say that even if we don’t remember it all, our early years have a big say in who we are now, including the things we struggle with.

Unfortunately, that means, if you’ve had an unhappy childhood, the effects of that can manifest in your behavior today. 

Let’s take a closer look together at how an unhappy childhood can still affect us today in ways we don’t realize, according to psychology: 

1) Difficulty forming attachments

One of the most important things that happens in childhood is the development of our attachment style – the emotional relationship that develops between a baby and their primary caretaker.

Generally, a happy childhood leads to a healthy and secure attachment style. In the same way, an unhappy childhood tends to result in an insecure attachment style. 

If you didn’t grow up in a loving, consistent, and supportive environment, chances are you’ve got some trust issues, stemming from the fact that the adults in your life as a child weren’t exactly trustworthy and reliable. 

Today, that lack of trust can show up in different ways: people with an insecure attachment style might be avoidant, clingy and overly needy, or disorganized and generally struggle to deal with life’s stresses. 

However it manifests, the bottom line is, there’s an overall struggle to form meaningful relationships. 

Is it too late then? Not at all. According to psychotherapist Marni Feuerman at Very Well Mind

“The strategy for creating an earned secure adult attachment style involves reconciling childhood experiences and making sense of the impact a person’s past has on their present and future.”

The important thing is, you’re here today reading this and hopefully realizing how important it is to heal those childhood wounds. That’s the first step to recovery. 

2) Fear of abandonment

Speaking of insecure attachment theory brings me to one of its most subtle yet damaging effects – a fear of being abandoned

I can’t say I’ve had an unhappy childhood, but it did have some majorly unhappy stages, the biggest one of which was my parents divorcing. 

It wasn’t my fault, that much I understood, and yet it left me with abandonment issues

I only realized it when I was all grown up and having my own relationships. I wondered why I would be in turns: 

  • Clingy and jealous
  • People pleasing
  • Unwilling to be vulnerable
  • Preemptively rejecting (I would think my partner would leave me anyway, so I’d go right ahead and do the leaving, even if we had no major issues)

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to stop and think about why I was behaving in these ways. And it came down to the fact that a part of my childhood wasn’t stable

It came down to the fact that one of my parents left, and that cemented in me the belief that people will always leave. 

If this resonates with you, it might be time to address this fear. 

Seek help from a therapist if you need to, because let’s be honest – facing our fears and breaking lifelong patterns of thinking is hard. There’s no shame in asking for help. 

3) Low self-esteem and self-worth

Another effect of an unhappy childhood is that it damages self-perception

Think about it – if all you ever received was neglect, criticism, or, in extreme cases, abuse, then the underlying message you get is this: 

“You are not important. You are not worthy of love and care.”

Of course, it’s not the truth, but it will come across as true to your young, pliable mind. 

Unfortunately, it’s a message you might still be carrying to this day. So, it might help to do a quick self-check and ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do you have a hard time expressing your opinions and standing up for yourself?
  • Do you let others treat you poorly? 
  • Are you afraid of failure?
  • Do you struggle to receive compliments or praise?
  • Do you often compare yourself to others and feel like you fall short?
  • Do you often find yourself needing validation from others to feel good about your decisions or accomplishments?
  • Do you often criticize yourself or focus on your flaws?
  • Are you overly sensitive to criticism from others?

If you’ve answered yes to several of these questions, consider it your cue to start rebuilding your sense of self-worth. It’s time to junk that harmful message you received as a child and discover how valuable and worthy you truly are. 

4) Anxiety and depression

Did you know that, according to this study, there’s a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and chronic depression?

The study concludes: “In particular multiple traumatic experiences, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse may lead to a more chronic and severe course of depression.”

This statement underscores the lasting impact that early life trauma can have on an individual’s mental well-being. 

It also tells adults who had a hard time as kids that their feelings make sense, and it’s not their fault they’re feeling this way. 

Understanding this link helps us all see why some people struggle more with feeling down and why it’s so important to be kind and support each other. 

If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s that there’s help out there. 

Talking to someone who understands or joining a group where people share their stories can go a long way in feeling supported and making sense of those bad experiences.

5) Challenges with emotional regulation

Our childhood experiences also shape the way we regulate our emotions. Thankfully, with all the studies around emotional intelligence in recent years, we now know more about how it develops. 

A key finding is that emotion regulation is deeply connected with family factors. One study declared: 

“Parental relationship significantly affects children’s emotional regulation as children learn from their environment.”

All that to say, if your role models weren’t exactly paragons of emotional intelligence, chances are you picked up their habits, too. 

Case in point: my dad had quite an explosive temper. Growing up, I saw his reactions to frustration or anger as the norm, not realizing that there were healthier ways to deal with those emotions. 

In contrast, my mom was the stonewalling type. She would clam up in unpleasant situations, but boy, she could nurse a grudge to kingdom come. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents dearly. But I can now see that they weren’t the best models for emotion regulation.

And that really influenced how I dealt with conflict as an adult. I had to do a lot of inner work to learn healthy ways of expressing and regulating my emotions. 

My point is, understanding the root of our emotional habits can be uncomfortable, but it’s a powerful first step toward change. And if I could do it, you definitely can, too!

6) Difficulty experiencing joy

Childhood should be a time for carefree and joyful days, isn’t it? However, not all of us get to have that. 

If your childhood was filled with more bad days than good, it can be hard to find joy or pleasure even as an adult. 

Psychology Today explains this situation so well: 

“A bad childhood undermines our ability to cope in a different way: by making it difficult or impossible for us to accumulate life-affirming energy from the start (…) As a result, a person may experience a void or darkness where others have stored hope.”

So, if you often feel like you’re missing out on happiness or hope, it’s not because you’re just a plain old Debbie Downer. It’s just that you had a tougher start than some others.

But here’s some good news: it’s possible to catch up. 

With the right care – maybe talking to someone who can help, like a counselor, or finding small things that make you smile – you can start to feel better and learn how to bring more light and joy into your life.

7) Tendency toward self-sabotage

Given all of the above issues, this one is probably not surprising. Self-sabotage is common in people who’ve had an unhappy childhood because of the insecurities and fears that childhood trauma brought along with it. 

The thing is, self-sabotage is super sneaky; we often don’t know we’re doing it. 

Once again, the key is to be self-aware. According to Dr. Ryan S. Sultan in Medical News Today, “Overcoming self-sabotage requires introspection, patience, and practice.”

8) Somatic symptoms

Finally, an unhappy childhood might actually result in physical manifestations of psychological distress. 

In his interesting book on trauma, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” author Bessel van der Kolk points out:

“The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

It’s a big eye-opener that what happens to us when we’re little can show up in how our bodies feel and act today. 

Think about it like this: if you’re often scared, your body is like a tightly coiled spring, always ready to jump. Or if you’re always mad, it’s like your body is stuck in anger mode, tensed up and ready to fight.

But if we start paying more attention to our bodies, noticing how we stand, breathe, or where we feel tight, we can actually start to feel better. 

Doing things like stretching, deep breathing, or playing sports can help us get more in tune with ourselves and let go of some of that built-up tension.

Final thoughts

An unhappy childhood doesn’t have to doom you to an unhappy life. But the key here is self-awareness, as I mentioned earlier. 

When you’re aware of how certain things you do today are a result of the messages you received as a child, you’re in a better position to make the changes you need. 

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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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