9 signs you grew up in a toxic household, according to psychology

Childhood is a funny thing.

The way we are raised is one of the defining factors that determine the course of our lives and the psychology we develop as we grow up.

But at the same time, we don’t always have a great understanding of what kind of environment we were raised in.

After all, to a kid, the way you grew up is just the way it is. With nothing else to compare it to, you don’t know whether your life is normal, or whether you grew up in a toxic environment.

And that blind spot can stay with us even as we become adults.

However, psychology shows us that there are some telltale signs of a toxic household.

So if you recognize some of these in the way you were brought up, it may help you understand the forces that made you what you are today.

1) You don’t believe in yourself

A healthy sense of self-esteem is important for anyone who wants to go far in life. And for many of us, that sense of self-esteem and self-belief comes from being raised by parents who encouraged us to be our best.

But people who don’t get that encouragement often struggle to build healthy self-esteem in later life.

“The family is one of the most critical risks and resilient factors for mental health in adolescence and emerging adulthood,” according to this study.

Conducted on Iraqi children, it found that the recent decades of suffering and instability in the country have had a devastating effect on the self-esteem of children growing up there.

You don’t need to grow up in a war zone to suffer from low self-esteem.

Being raised by overly critical, negative, or abusive parents can easily convince a child that they aren’t worth much.

And that’s a feeling that can last well into adulthood and cause people to not believe in themselves and their abilities.

2) You’re afraid of failure

Another consequence of growing up in a toxic household is being afraid of failure.

Look, no one likes to fail. At the same time, it’s true that success in life often comes from our ability to take risks.

Therefore, a crippling fear of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making us more likely to fail in the first place.

“Fear of failure among children in America today is at epidemic proportions,” writes psychologist Jim Taylor. And yet, “failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, determination, decision making, and problem solving.”

Kids who aren’t taught how to fail often grow up lacking these vital skills.

If you find yourself giving up too easily or not taking chances because you don’t believe in your own ability to perform difficult tasks, ask yourself whether that fear of failure is a consequence of the way you were brought up.

3) You feel guilty or ashamed

It’s a sad fact that the negative feelings we absorb in childhood can haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Being constantly blamed for things going wrong as a child can stay with you for a lifetime.

This leads to adults who constantly feel guilty or ashamed of their actions, even when they shouldn’t.

Psychologist Darius Cikanavicius refers to this as ‘toxic shame’.

He distinguishes between this toxic shame and the shame we are supposed to feel when we do something wrong.

Toxic shame is not based on our actions, but instead comes from past trauma.

“In most cases, it is trauma a person experienced in their childhood and adolescence,” he writes. “It develops because an individual’s primary caregivers or other important figures routinely shamed, or punished them either passively or actively. Such a person internalized those hurtful and untrue words and behaviors, and it became their understanding of who they are as a person.”

4) You have anxiety or depression

Depression and anxiety are both complex psychological disorders that can come from many different sources.

However, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that a difficult or traumatic childhood greatly increases a person’s risk of developing these disorders.

For example, this study found that 75% of a group of depressed patients reported a history of significant childhood trauma.

Unfortunately, sad kids often grow up into sad adults.

So if you struggle with feelings of depression or anxiety, there’s a good chance the answers lie within your childhood.

5) You try to please everyone

You try to please everyone 9 signs you grew up in a toxic household, according to psychology

People-pleasing might sound like a good thing. After all, we all want people to like us to some extent.

But people-pleasing can easily become a harmful habit if taken to an extreme.

And people who grew up in unhealthy environments often display this toxic trait.

“Regarding their value in life as based on their value to others, people-pleasers—so adept at nurturing those around them—literally don’t know how to nurture themselves,” writes psychologist Leon F Seltzer.

In other words, people pleasers put themselves last.

They will minimize or neglect their own needs for the sake of maintaining their relationships with other people, even when it harms them.

“As children, people-pleasers generally felt loved only when they were conforming to the needs and desires of their parents,” Seltzer writes in a follow-up article.

As an adult, this trait can open you up to toxic relationships.

Lacking an interior source of validation and self-esteem, people pleasers define their worth by how they can be useful to others.

This often leads them to have poor boundaries in their personal relationships.

6) You struggle to maintain relationships

If you’ve read this far, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that people who grew up in a toxic household often have a hard time building and maintaining healthy relationships.

After all, it takes a good level of self-esteem and internal validation to be a good partner for someone else.

If you don’t have those, it’s a lot easier for people to take advantage of you or even abuse you.

“A traumatized adult may end up dating someone emotionally unavailable, abusive, or narcissistic, or someone they want to rescue and fix,” writes psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner.

“It is not uncommon for people traumatized by key caregivers to end up with friendships, romantic relationships, and even work settings which are not good for them.”

Breaking out of the cycle of trauma can be the work of a lifetime.

But before you can even begin, you need to recognize it for what it is.

7) You are always on guard

People who experience an unstable environment as children often develop what is known in psychology as hypervigilance.

In other words, they are always on guard and never really relaxed.

Licensed mental health counselor Robert Taibbi identifies lots of different reasons why this can happen.

After all, some children have to grow up in war zones or surrounded by unstable political environments.

Other kids are raised by parents with severe mental health issues or substance abuse problems, making them behave erratically so that children have to walk on eggshells not to set their parents off.

“The problem is that like many adult problems, what you learned as a child doesn’t work as well in the adult world, and you don’t turn it off,” Taibbi writes. “You still can feel those little-kid feelings, you still are wired to look for those worst-case scenarios, and you still are over-sensitive to other’s reactions.”

In adulthood, this can lead to stress, anxiety, and damage to your personal relationships.

8) You find it hard to trust people

Our parents are supposed to be the first people we can trust with our lives.

But for lots of kids, that isn’t true. And when they can’t rely on their parents, they often learn not to rely on anyone.

“Imagine a friend who’s always suspicious, hesitant to open up, and keeps others at arm’s length.

They might struggle with self-esteem or have difficulty maintaining close relationships,” writes psychotherapist Adewale Ademuyiwa. “These could be signs that their trust issues stem from a neglected past. Recognizing these patterns is the first step towards healing.”

9) You are emotionally detached

There are lots of different ways children learn to deal with a toxic environment they can’t control.

One of them is to become withdrawn and emotionally detached from what’s going on around them.

And like the other traits on this list, that’s a habit that can persist into adulthood.

“This can involve an inability or an unwillingness to get involved in the emotional lives of other people,” writes psychologist Kendra Cherry. “While this detachment may protect people from stress, hurt, and anxiety, it can also interfere with a person’s psychological, social, and emotional well-being.”

The legacy of a difficult childhood

Our childhoods define many aspects of the life we will come to live.

So an unhappy childhood spent in a toxic environment can have far-reaching effects that last a lifetime.

Keep an eye out for these behaviors in yourself and those around you.

Because once you understand the roots of your behavior in a toxic childhood, you can start to work on improving it.

Picture of Ava Sinclair

Ava Sinclair

Ava Sinclair is a former competitive athlete who transitioned into the world of wellness and mindfulness. Her journey through the highs and lows of competitive sports has given her a unique perspective on resilience and mental toughness. Ava’s writing reflects her belief in the power of small, daily habits to create lasting change.

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