9 reasons people with difficult childhoods often become the most resilient adults

Hard times make strong people.

It’s an unfortunate fact that we don’t all get the same start in life. While for many, childhood is a time of fun and discovery that they will always look back on with fondness, for others, childhood can be a traumatic testing ground.

But it’s not all bad.

While no one would necessarily wish for a difficult childhood, they can have positive effects. Often, people with difficult childhoods learn the hard lessons at an early age and become the most resilient adults you will ever meet.

Here’s why.

1) They learn to observe

Have you ever met one of those people who seems to notice everything?

Being observant can help you in many ways. It can alert you to danger sooner than other people. It can help you understand the personalities and motivations of the people around you. It can help you create links between different things and come up with new ideas.

And children who grew up in difficult environments have extraordinary powers of observation.

Having to guess how the adults around them will react every day makes kids with troubled environments observant of everything around them. This trait often stays with them in adulthood and can make them extraordinarily resilient and adaptable to change.

2) They learn to multitask

In 2015, researchers including Chiraag Mittal and Vladas Griskevicius published a study demonstrating that people with difficult childhoods actually perform better at some cognitive tasks than those who didn’t.

Specifically, the researchers found that people whose childhood was unpredictable and chaotic were better at shifting their attention from one task to another.

Probably that’s because these people learn at an early age how to cope with rapidly changing environments.

Here’s the thing: life is change. And how you deal with change can be a major predictor of your happiness and success in life.

A chaotic childhood teaches people to become resilient adults who can roll with the punches and quickly adapt. That’s an impressive skill that can have major positive effects in your life.

3) They know how to deal with conflict

It’s true that kids who grow up in families where conflict is a constant fact of life tend to do worse on a lot of measures of later happiness. 

After all, it’s hard to form healthy relationships if you were never shown an example of what that looks like in childhood.

On the other hand, some conflict can actually benefit kids in later life.

Psychologist E. Mark Cummings states that “When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it.”

And there’s more.

Kids who grow up in what Cummings defines as a mild-to-moderate conflict environment learn how to resolve friction within a family environment. This makes them better-prepared and more resilient adults who can deal with the hard parts of relationships as well as the good times.

4) They value independence and self-reliance

pic1260 9 reasons people with difficult childhoods often become the most resilient adults

It’s a sad fact that kids with difficult childhoods quickly learn that they can’t rely on anybody except themselves.

And while that’s a tough lesson to learn, especially at a young age, it’s a valuable insight that creates strong and independent adults.

We all need each other sometimes. But at the same time, sitting around waiting for somebody else to make things happen for you is one of the easiest ways to live a diminished life.

People who grew up hard learn that if they want something in life, they have to make it happen for themselves. And often, that makes them some of the most successful and driven people around.

5) They don’t romanticize the past

Kinky Friedman once wrote, “a happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life.”

While it may seem a little cynical, it is true that fixation on the past can hold you back from enjoying the present.

That’s true no matter what kind of childhood you had. 

However, people with happy childhoods often find themselves trying to re-create something they can never get back: the feeling of safety and security they enjoyed as children.

People who had difficult childhoods can’t do that. So instead, they often direct their thoughts to the future and focus on what they can control to make themselves happy.

Instead of romanticizing the past, they dream big, knowing that whatever happens, the future will probably be better than the past.

6) They learn

I mentioned the work of Chiraag Mittal earlier. This researcher has also published research which demonstrates that a difficult childhood can also have profound effects on memory.

People with chaotic and unpredictable childhoods become better at a process called working memory updating. 

While it sounds like something your computer might do, it’s actually an important brain function that can be a significant predictor of higher mental abilities.

What does this mean?

Well, simply put, people with difficult childhoods are better at forgetting information that is no longer relevant and adopting new information that is.

This makes them great at learning new things.

Additionally, those with a difficult childhood are often determined not to repeat the mistakes and destructive patterns of the past. A child can learn from their parents’ mistakes in life, and this can make them more resilient and more focused adults.

7) They know how to break the rules

Society is full of rules. And lots of them are there for good reason. After all, not many people would want to get rid of drunk driving laws or laws designed to stop abuse.

But then there are the unwritten rules of society. Rules about how you should behave, the kind of job you should have or family you should want, and even rules about what dreams you should allow yourself.

And some of these rules can be incredibly destructive.

Escaping your programming means breaking the rules. And it turns out, people with difficult childhoods are better than most at breaking rules that hold them back.

Psychology professor Jeanmarie Bianchi writes that growing up in a stressful environment can promote certain forms of learning. It can also help children learn problem-solving skills that help them adapt to an environment that is always changing.

Simply put, when you grow up surrounded by unfair rules, you learn how to get around those rules to get what you want and need. And that’s a skill that can help you out a lot as an adult.

Adults who had a difficult childhood often display a willingness to go against the grain and defy authority that can make them some of the most creative thinkers around. Plus, some studies suggest that this willingness to defy authority can lead to higher incomes.

8) They have impressive self-control

pic1253 9 reasons people with difficult childhoods often become the most resilient adults

Imagine growing up in a chaotic environment with parents and other adults who are unpredictable.

Some parents are emotionally overbearing. Others are physically abusive. They may abuse drugs or alcohol, or be violent towards one another or towards their kids.

In a terrible environment like that, kids quickly learn that they need to control their actions and emotions. After all, they never know how the chaotic adults in their lives will react to what they say or do.

This self-control, although it is learned in the most awful way, can help children grow into remarkably resilient adults.

This massive 32 year study demonstrates that kids with a high level of self-control are more likely to be healthy and financially secure adults than those with less self-control.

9) They develop grit

And I’m not talking about the stuff they put on the roads in the winter.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth wrote the book Grit, where she argues that grit, which she defines as a “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals,” is something that kids develop through challenges.

Doing hard things, Duckworth argues, is how kids develop resilience, or grit. And while a traumatic childhood is far from the ideal way to develop this characteristic, it’s hard to argue that it works.

Growing up the hard way

There’s no denying that a difficult childhood can leave people with all kinds of psychological hangups that can come back to haunt them in later life.

Childhood trauma can negatively affect brain development and can lead to:

  • learning disabilities
  • behavioral problems
  • poor self-regulation
  • depression
  • memory problems
  • low social skills
  • PTSD

That’s why I wouldn’t wish a difficult childhood on anyone.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that nothing in life is purely good or bad. Even an extremely difficult childhood can lead to spectacular outcomes later in life.

Kids with tough upbringings are forced to learn resilience. But once they do, they have an important tool to make a life worth living. 

So, as bad as a difficult childhood can be, there are some benefits to those tough enough to grow out of it and improve their lives.

Picture of Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley is a France-based writer with a passion for psychology, philosophy, science, and anything that attempts to answer life’s biggest questions. Reach out at ryan@ryanfrawley.com

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.