9 psychological theories that explain the long-term effects of an unhappy childhood

Childhood plays a big role in shaping who we become as adults. Happy kids typically grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults.

But unhappy kids? It’s not that simple. 

When childhood is filled with negative experiences, it can leave lasting effects on our mental and emotional health. 

There are many explanations surrounding these long-term effects of an unhappy childhood. 

As an early childhood teacher, I love talking about these psychological theories because they help us understand the root causes of people’s struggles in adulthood. 

And thus, to be more compassionate and help them work towards healing.

Here are nine of those theories: 

1) Hierarchy of Needs Theory

Let’s start with one of the most basic theories explaining human motivation. 

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a foundational theory in psychology that categorizes our needs into a hierarchical structure. It goes like this: 

  1. Physiological (e.g. food and water)
  2. Safety
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

The idea is that we can only go on to the next level if the previous need has been met. Think of it like a video game where you have to accomplish a mission before you can get access to the next. 

So, with this in mind, you can see how kids whose more primary needs have not been met in childhood would have a harder time reaching the pinnacle of self-actualization. 

2) Identity Development Theory

Speaking of self-actualization leads me to this theory on the development of identity

As in, “Who am I?” 

The quest for identity is a cornerstone of human development and is particularly pronounced during adolescence. 

And if that question isn’t clearly answered, well, you can see just how difficult it would be to navigate through life!

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson delved deep into this matter with his theory of psychosocial development

He proposed an eight-stage sequence of development – again, rather like a video game – where we must gain competence and resolve the conflicts in each stage to move on to the next.

The end result of accomplishing all those stages well is this – we gain mastery and develop a healthy ego. A healthy sense of self. 

But if we don’t, if we had an unhappy childhood, that sense of self becomes precarious. It will be harder for us to achieve a clear sense of identity, which can then lead to role confusion…

…And forever wondering who we are, what we’re capable of, and what our place in the world is. 

3) Attachment Theory

The Attachment Theory often figures in many counseling and therapy settings because it explains a lot about how someone handles their relationships. 

Introduced by John Bowlby, this theory emphasizes the importance of early relationships and attachments, particularly between a child and caregiver. 

Essentially, it states that when we feel stable and secure with our caregivers in childhood, we grow up confident and go on to have healthy relationships

In contrast, if our childhood was unstable – like if we were neglected or had unreliable caregivers – we can develop insecure attachment styles. Here are some ways they manifest: 

  • Anxious attachment: We become overly clingy and are forever scared of being abandoned
  • Avoidant attachment: We distance ourselves from others and suppress our feelings

Neither of which are healthy. These unhealthy kinds of attachment lead us to have a lot of issues surrounding trust and intimacy. 

4) Emotional Regulation Theory

Just like Attachment Theory explains why we approach relationships the way we do, Emotional Regulation Theory explains how we manage our emotions. 

James Gross’s theory revolves around the processes we use to influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express them. 

What exactly are the ways we manage our emotions? 

  • We avoid situations that provoke certain feelings
  • We change our perspective on a situation
  • We suppress our feelings 
  • We let an emotion drive us

Do these sound familiar to you? Some of us handle our feelings well, while others don’t. 

For instance, my childhood wasn’t exactly unhappy, but it had moments of instability and distress. My dad had a volatile temper, and when he drank, it would turn ugly. 

My response to that was to shut it out. To go to my “happy place”, which was my room, where I could close the door and bury my nose in my books. 

However, that coping mechanism carried into adulthood, and I would handle conflict the same way – by avoiding it. By walking away instead of sitting down and having a healthy and productive conversation. 

It would take a lot of mindfulness and conscious effort for me to be aware of this pattern of mine that I’d developed in childhood so I could have the healthy relationships I have now. 

5) Social Learning Theory

pic1390 9 psychological theories that explain the long-term effects of an unhappy childhood

That aspect of my childhood also led me to believe that volatile tempers, aggression, and substance abuse were normal. 

It was only when I started hanging out at my best friend’s house that I learned there are other, healthier ways for families to interact. 

That’s Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory at work. You see, according to Bandura, kids learn by observing and imitating the behaviors of those around them. 

In an unhappy or abusive household, children might witness negative behaviors like aggression or substance abuse.

Consequently, they may grow up believing such behaviors are normal or acceptable, like I did. Some may even have self-destructive tendencies. 

That’s why, as a parent and a teacher, I was very conscious of how I behaved. I didn’t want my kids and students to see unacceptable behavior and think of it as acceptable.

6) Cognitive Behavior Theory

Going on from Social Learning Theory, let’s get into the Cognitive Behavior Theory

Which is all about patterns. 

For instance, an unhappy childhood can foster negative thought patterns, which in turn influence feelings and actions. 

Once those patterns are in place, they dictate how the person would see and interact with the world. 

And believe me, they can be very hard to break. If you grow up believing that the world is harsh, it would take a lot of effort to see the beauty and kindness around you. 

That’s because the brain is wired to recognize and reinforce established patterns. Neural pathways are like grooves – the more we think a certain thought, the deeper that groove gets. 

So, even if a situation is neutral or positive, we might still lean towards interpreting them through that negative lens. Our brain is simply following the “path” it knows best.

And you know what’s so sad about it? These patterns can act as self-fulfilling prophecies. 

If you grew up being told you’re not good, you’ll likely behave that way…inadvertently proving the negative thought right. 

This is what makes Cognitive Behavioral Theory so relevant. Some of us may have such deeply ingrained patterns to unlearn, which is why CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is so important today.

7) Learned Helplessness Theory

One of those damaging patterns is a mindset where we believe we have no control over what happens in our lives. 

That’s what psychologists Steven Maier and Martin Seligman call “learned helplessness”. And it’s a pretty interesting theory. 

It suggests that kids who were exposed to uncontrollable stressors – maybe a harsh or abusive parent, bullying at school, and such – learn how to be passive. 

Why? Because they can’t control their situation. They have no agency over these stressors. 

So, they cope by, sad to say, giving up. Leaning into despair and feeling unmotivated in life. 

If left unaddressed, this mindset persists into adulthood and they end up making decisions that reflect that feeling of helplessness. 

8) Stress Vulnerability Model

What a wonderful world it would be if all children grew up without stress, wouldn’t it? But sadly, that’s just wishful thinking. 

How do we deal with stress? According to the Stress Vulnerability Model, we all have varying levels of vulnerability to stress. 

And that depends on two factors: genetics and early life experiences. 

Those with an unhappy childhood might have a heightened vulnerability. This in turn makes them more susceptible to mental health disorders when faced with stressors in adulthood.

That’s why it’s important to teach kids to be resilient. To have healthy coping strategies. 

Otherwise, they would be at higher risk for issues like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. 

Which brings me to my next point…

9) Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Why are coping strategies important? Because our brains have a remarkable ability to change and adapt. 

This is a concept known as neuroplasticity, and it’s both psychological and physiological in nature. 

It’s especially relevant for people who had a traumatic childhood. You see, repeated trauma during childhood doesn’t just damage the sense of self. 

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Theory, traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse and neglect affect brain development and overall health. 

To support this theory, Drs. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda spearheaded the ACEs study. 

And they found a strong link between childhood trauma and long-term physical and mental health outcomes, such as: 

  • Heart disease
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Depression and mental health disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Cognitive issues 

This shows just how far-reaching the consequences of trauma are. It’s never limited to that singular traumatic episode. 

You may have survived those tough times, but they will leave scars on your brain, body, and behavior. 

Final thoughts

There’s no doubt that an unhappy childhood can leave deep scars and have profound long-term effects. 

But the good thing is, like I mentioned earlier, the brain is plastic. Capable of breaking the patterns we’ve held throughout our lives. Capable of believing new, more empowering thoughts. 

With the right support and interventions, people with an unhappy childhood can find their way back to stability and lead well-adjusted, fulfilling lives. 

Picture of Roselle Umlas

Roselle Umlas

I am a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in helping people become more reflective and self-aware so that they can communicate better and enjoy meaningful relationships.

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