For the most part, childhood is a simple time. But what we may not realize is that it’s also a fragile time — our brains are developing, pretty much blank slates, and anything can create a lasting impression.
Even if you’ve never experienced a huge childhood trauma, you still could have had some early experiences that etched deep grooves into your psyche.
Little things you’ve dismissed as trivial could still leave lasting effects that pop up from nowhere when you’re an adult.
For instance, I was once ejected from my fifth-grade music room because I couldn’t carry a tune and, according to my teacher, I was messing up the vibe.
I’d find this story so funny later on as a grown-up, but I also know that it’s a contributing reason to why I continue to have a fear of rejection as an adult.
That’s what I mean – unresolved childhood issues are sneaky.
So let’s take a closer look at some behaviors we have as adults that could be a sign of unresolved childhood issues.
1) You tend to overreact to criticism
Criticism is something we often deal with as adults, whether at work or in our relationships.
For some, it’s a mere sting. For others, it feels like a punch in the gut, something to nurse and dwell on long after they’ve received it.
If you’re in the latter category, it could be a sign that you’ve got some unresolved childhood issues. Maybe you were raised in an environment where hypercriticism was the norm.
The overall message you may have received in such an environment was this: “You’re inadequate. Nothing you do is enough.”
So, with that thought embedded in your brain, it’s easy to see why criticism can push that feeling to the forefront, never mind if you’ve actually had a lot of accomplishments as an adult.
2) You have a fear of rejection
- Not getting invited to a birthday party
- Getting laughed at for the things you share about yourself
- Getting picked last for the softball team
- Finding yourself the only one without a partner in a school project
Or getting ejected from the music room (or any setting), like me.
To an adult, small snubs like this might seem like nothing. But for kids, they are everything. Our world as kids is very small, so incidents like these loom large.
The funny thing is, they still loom large in our brains, no matter how old we are.
They’re just no longer as obvious, but they show up in the ways we think it’s safer not to ask or join in. They show up in the way that we don’t express ourselves because…what if we get laughed at or rejected all over again?
This brings me to my next point…
3) You have chronic self-doubt
A question you might find yourself often asking if you have unresolved childhood issues surrounding competence.
Here’s how early experiences may contribute to a persistent sense of doubt in adulthood:
- Overprotective parenting may have contributed to a lack of decision-making skills, so that we don’t grow confident in our own judgment
- Excessive expectations may have sent us the message that “we are never enough”
- Comparisons with siblings can make us feel “less than” our “better” siblings
- Lack of praise or positive reinforcement can make us believe that we’re not capable – which then leads to us forever wanting external validation
Whew. As someone who has experienced two of the items on this list (comparisons with siblings and lack of praise), I know just how it feels to be constantly doubting yourself, even as an adult.
It takes a lot of unlearning these old messages and learning new ones to break the hold our inner critic has over us.
(And I don’t know about you, but this list shows just how challenging it is to be a parent!)
Ah, one of my own personal demons – the need to be perfect. As a (former) chronic self-doubter, eventually becoming a perfectionist was a natural consequence.
- Insanely high parental expectations
- Conditional praise (you’re only told you’re good if you do X or Y)
- Lack of focus on effort vs achievement
- Having a perfectionist parent as a role model
Situations like these can develop a mindset that anything less than first place, less than THE best is a loss.
It’s tough to beat perfectionism, I can tell you that. It takes a lot of inner work to learn to love yourself as you are, whatever mess-ups you make.
But once you get there, it’s incredibly liberating. And you’ll see that your mistakes didn’t result in the end of the world!
5) You find it hard to attach to people
Have you ever felt like you’re always a little distant from others? The minute someone gets close to you, you step back or close yourself off.
Or if you’re quite skilled at hiding it, you show other people only certain parts of yourself. On the surface, it seems like you’re vibing well, but the truth is, deep inside, you don’t feel connected at all.
That’s a sign that you may have some unresolved childhood issues.
Research gives us a framework to understand these tendencies. According to studies on attachment theory, our early bonding with caregivers can determine how we connect with others throughout our lives.
Which means, if you happened to have a caregiver who didn’t pay you much attention past giving you the essentials of food and shelter…
…then you’d likely find it hard to develop truly strong and emotionally rich relationships as a grown-up.
It’s sad, isn’t it, to keep others at an arm’s length all the time? But the good news is, once you identify that pattern, you can address it with the right support and strategies.
6) You experience intense anger or mood swings
Are we born with anger issues and mood swings?
Barring any hormonal or mood disorders, we’re not. We’ve likely developed behaviors involving strong and unexpected emotional responses due to events in our childhood.
For instance, if you’ve had an unstable home or experienced abuse/neglect/bullying, it’s quite common for those chaotic beginnings to translate into adulthood as anger issues or mood swings.
According to family and child development experts, stability is a key ingredient in a child’s development.
Without it, the emotional foundation can be shaky and the effects will be evident long after you’ve outgrown your bike’s training wheels.
7) You have control issues
Similarly, an unstable environment can also lead to control issues in adulthood.
When things are unpredictable, you learn as a child that taking control can sometimes seem like the only way to have some semblance of safety and order.
Take it from me – someone who grew up in a home where discord seemed to be the norm rather than the exception.
I personally didn’t grow up to have control issues (I became an escapist – more on that later), but my sister did.
Because she never knew if she’d come home to shouting, silence, or something in between, she found her own little system for a more ordered and predictable life.
She was a monster about keeping to a rigid schedule and keeping her room tidy and well-organized. To this day, she’s like that and has to be conscious about not micromanaging others.
As for me, well, I went the opposite route and did this next thing…
8) You have escapist tendencies
Yup, this was my coping strategy for living in a chaotic home where parents were always fighting.
As a child, I’d shut out all the yelling and sniping by hiding in my mini-library. Books soothed me (and still do) and I could pretend that a world war wasn’t going on around me.
I still tend to do this even now, still with books, but also with Netflix binge-watching. When something unpleasant happens, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Oh well…” and find a cocoon to burrow in.
If that sounds familiar to you, then as you can see, you’re not alone. But as blissful as escaping chaos is, it does bear addressing.
You know why? Because as an adult, it can mess up your relationships.
My own husband has called me out on this many times – he knows just how much of an escapist I can get. So when there’s an issue to be resolved, he refuses to let me slide away into oblivion.
And I’m so grateful for it. Because otherwise, nothing would ever get solved!
9) You have trust issues
Another consequence of instability in childhood – trust issues.
How can you trust people when you know they’re unreliable, right?
And unfortunately, if that’s what the adults in your life were like, that’s going to shape your worldview.
When the key people in your life don’t show up to your events, for example, or if they constantly break their promises, you grow up thinking that people will always disappoint you.
Breaking the patterns we’ve developed due to unresolved childhood issues is no joke. It takes a lot of self-reflection, a commitment to change, and sometimes even professional help.
But it’s worth it. The beautiful thing about being human – especially a self-aware human – is that we can always rewrite our narrative.
We don’t have to keep telling ourselves the same wrong messages we were told years ago. We’ve got the power to write new ones, and I hope you find yours.