7 specific behaviors of people who had an unhappy childhood, according to psychology

If you’ve ever been with someone who had an unhappy childhood, you may have noticed certain patterns of behavior that seem a bit different.

Psychology provides some insights into how a troubled childhood can influence a person’s behavior in adulthood, and it’s not always straightforward.

Having an unhappy childhood isn’t a choice; it’s a circumstance that shapes an individual’s life.

Understanding these behaviors isn’t about labeling or shaming, but about gaining insight. This can help in relating to them better and providing the necessary support.

Remember that the goal is to understand, not to judge.

With this in mind, let’s delve into specific behaviors of people who had an unhappy childhood, according to psychology.

1) Difficulty forming close relationships

According to psychology, one of the primary behaviors of individuals who have had an unhappy childhood is the struggle to form and maintain close, intimate relationships.

This isn’t a reflection of their worth or capability, but a consequence of their early experiences.

For instance, if, as a child, they faced neglect or abandonment, they might come to view relationships as unstable and unreliable.

Consequently, they may either avoid intimate relationships altogether, fearing rejection or disappointment, or they may become overly clingy, seeking constant reassurance and validation.

This behavior is not about them being difficult or emotionally needy. Rather, it’s a protective mechanism deeply rooted in their past experiences.

Remember, when interacting with such individuals, it’s important to approach them with empathy and understanding.

Your patience and reassurance could make a world of difference to them.

2) Overachievement and perfectionism

While it might seem surprising, another behavior characteristic of individuals with an unhappy childhood is the tendency to be overachievers or perfectionists.

This is not about them naturally being more talented or driven. Instead, this behavior can be traced back to their childhood experiences.

Often, children who grow up in difficult circumstances might feel they need to earn love and approval. They may have been made to feel that they were never good enough, leading them to constantly strive for perfection in their adult lives.

They may set high standards for themselves, work tirelessly to achieve their goals, and take failure very personally.

Despite the outward appearance of success, this behavior can take an emotional toll.

It’s important to remember that it’s okay not to be perfect and that self-worth is not determined by achievements alone. Professional help can provide strategies for managing these feelings and developing a more balanced approach to success.

3) Hypervigilance and anxiety

Individuals who have had an unhappy childhood often exhibit hypervigilance and a heightened sense of anxiety. This behavior is rooted in their early experiences of having to constantly be on guard for potential threats or dangers.

Growing up in an unpredictable environment, these individuals have learned to always be alert and ready for the worst.

This could manifest in their adult life as constant worry, a tendency to overthink situations, or a general sense of unease even in safe environments. Their constant alertness can be exhausting and interfere with their ability to relax and enjoy life.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found effective in helping individuals manage these feelings of anxiety and hypervigilance, teaching them strategies to challenge their thought patterns and manage their reactions to perceived threats.

4) Difficulty expressing emotions

warning signs youve stopped growing as a person 7 specific behaviors of people who had an unhappy childhood, according to psychology

One of the profound behaviors observed in those who had an unhappy childhood is the struggle to express emotions openly.

This isn’t being cold or unfeeling; it’s having learned to suppress their emotions as a coping mechanism.

Perhaps as children, they’ve been punished or ridiculed for showing emotions. Or maybe expressing feelings was viewed as a sign of weakness in their household.

Such experiences can lead them to bottle up their emotions, creating a wall around themselves.

As a result, they might seem distant or unemotional in their adult lives.

5) Inconsistent self-image

Another behavior observed in those who had an unhappy childhood can be an inconsistent self-image.

Most of us have questioned our identity at some point in life. It’s part of growing and evolving. However, for individuals with an unhappy childhood, this can be a constant struggle that causes significant distress.

Growing up in a troubled environment, they might have adapted different personas to cope with varying situations. This could lead to a fragmented self-image in their adult life, causing confusion about their true identity.

They might often question their likes, dislikes, values, and even their beliefs. 

A supportive network of friends and family can help them feel accepted and valued for who they are.

Professional help can also play a critical role in helping them explore their identity in a healthy way and develop a more consistent sense of self.

6) Overly responsible behavior

A common behavior of individuals who had an unhappy childhood is the tendency to take on excessive responsibility. It’s often a response to having been forced to grow up too fast.

For instance, a child who had to take care of their younger siblings due to absent or neglectful parents might carry this sense of extreme responsibility into adulthood. They might feel compelled to take care of everyone around them, often at the expense of their own needs and well-being.

They might be the friend who always steps in to help, the colleague who takes on extra workload, or the family member who puts everyone else’s needs before their own.

While it’s commendable to be responsible, it’s also important for these individuals to understand that it’s okay to prioritize their own needs and well-being. Self-care is not selfish, and asking for help when needed is not a sign of weakness. 

7) Lack of self-care

It’s not uncommon to see people who had an unhappy childhood neglecting their own self-care. 

In adverse childhood conditions, they might have learned to put others’ needs before their own or might not have been taught the importance of self-care.

As a result, they might neglect their physical health, ignore their emotional needs, or constantly push themselves to exhaustion.

But here’s the hard truth: ignoring your own needs and well-being is not sustainable, and it’s not healthy.

If you recognize this pattern in yourself or someone you know, it’s time for a reality check.

Self-care is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s important to make time for rest, eat healthily, engage in physical activity, and address emotional needs. 

Healing is possible

Perhaps the most crucial behavior to understand is that, despite the struggles and challenges that come with an unhappy childhood, healing is absolutely possible.

This isn’t about erasing the past or ignoring the pain, but about acknowledging it and working through it.

Everyone heals at their own pace and in their own way.  Seeking professional help from mental health professionals who specialize in childhood trauma can be incredibly beneficial.

They can provide strategies and tools to navigate these behaviors, manage emotional distress, and break negative patterns.

Remember, it’s never too late to seek help and start healing.

Progress might be slow, and there might be setbacks, but every step forward is a step towards a healthier, happier life.

You are not defined by your past; you have the power to shape your future.

Picture of Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley, a London-based writer, is passionate about helping others discover the power of self-improvement. Her approach combines everyday wisdom with practical strategies, shaped by her own journey overcoming personal challenges. Eliza's articles resonate with those seeking to navigate life's complexities with grace and strength.

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