14 Ways A Traumatic Childhood Can Ruin Your Adult Life

Having a traumatic childhood can end up affecting you in many different ways in your adult life, none of them positive. Here are some issues you may experience when you haven’t processed what you’ve been through. That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome these setbacks, but you’ll need to do some hard work to get there.

1. Trust issues

When you’ve had a traumatic childhood, trusting others doesn’t come easy. It’s like your mind has built a safety barrier to protect you from getting hurt again. This can make forming close relationships tough, as there’s always a part of you holding back, wary of being vulnerable. You might find yourself questioning people’s motives or constantly waiting for them to disappoint you. This lack of trust can impact not just romantic relationships but friendships and work relationships too. It can make you seem distant or overly cautious. Building trust takes time and often requires working through past traumas to understand that not everyone will hurt you like in the past.

2. Emotional regulation

For those who’ve experienced childhood trauma, emotions can feel like a rollercoaster ride. You might have intense reactions to situations that others find minor, or you might go the other way and feel numb in moments that should evoke strong emotions. It’s as if your emotional responses have been rewired by your early experiences, leaving you feeling out of sync with the world around you. These emotional regulation challenges can lead to difficulties in maintaining stable relationships and can impact your work life. You might find yourself reacting impulsively, feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions, or struggling to connect with others on an emotional level. It often takes conscious effort and sometimes professional help to learn how to manage and understand your emotions.

3. Low self-esteem

upset sad sad child girl in stress cries at an empty dark wall

If your childhood was filled with trauma, it might have planted deep-seated beliefs that you’re not good enough. This low self-esteem can be like an invisible anchor, holding you back from realizing your full potential. You might downplay your achievements, shy away from opportunities, or stay in unhealthy relationships because you don’t believe you deserve better. This lack of self-worth can manifest in various areas of your life, from career to personal relationships. You might constantly seek validation from others or set unrealistically high standards for yourself, leading to a cycle of disappointment and self-criticism. Overcoming these feelings often involves relearning how to view yourself and acknowledging your worth.

4. Fear of abandonment

When you grow up experiencing abandonment or neglect, it can leave a lasting impact. This might manifest as a persistent fear of being abandoned again, making you overly clingy or hypersensitive to any signs of rejection in your relationships. You might interpret a partner’s need for space as a prelude to leaving you, or you might stay in unhealthy relationships for fear of being alone. This fear can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where your anxiety about being abandoned actually pushes people away. Breaking this cycle often requires understanding where this fear comes from and learning to build secure, trusting relationships.

5. Anxiety and depression

Trauma in your early years can set a foundation for mental health issues like anxiety and depression. You might find yourself constantly worried, expecting the worst, or struggling with a persistent sense of sadness. It’s as if the trauma has left a shadow over your life, coloring your experiences and how you interact with the world. These mental health challenges can make everyday life a struggle. You might find it hard to maintain relationships, struggle with motivation, or find little joy in activities you used to love. Seeking support, whether through therapy, support groups, or medication, can be essential in managing these conditions.

6. Forming healthy relationships

Having a background of trauma can skew your perception of what a healthy relationship looks like. You might find yourself drawn to partners who reflect the negative patterns you experienced in childhood, mistaking familiarity for love. Or, you might push away good relationships because they feel unfamiliar and therefore, uncomfortable. It’s like having a distorted lens through which you view relationships, making it hard to see what’s healthy and what’s not. Breaking these patterns is often a process of relearning what a healthy relationship entails. It involves setting and respecting boundaries, understanding mutual respect, and recognizing that you deserve to be treated well. Sometimes, it means unlearning a lot of what your childhood taught you about love and relationships.

7. Avoiding emotions

After experiencing trauma, you might find yourself steering clear of situations that could potentially cause emotional pain. This avoidance can manifest in many ways, like turning down invitations to social events, avoiding intimate relationships, or shying away from new experiences. It’s a defensive tactic, aimed at protecting yourself from being hurt again. But this approach can also lead to a life that’s restricted and lacking in depth. The challenge here is finding a balance between protecting yourself and not closing off from life’s experiences. It involves gradually exposing yourself to situations that might feel uncomfortable and learning to cope with the emotions they bring up. This process can help you grow and learn that not every new experience will lead to pain.

8. Stress management

Trauma can lead to the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way to manage stress and emotional pain. These might include substance abuse, disordered eating, or self-harm. While these behaviors might provide temporary relief or a sense of control, they often worsen your overall well-being in the long run. It’s like putting a band-aid on a wound that really needs more in-depth treatment. Addressing these unhealthy coping mechanisms often requires professional help. It involves understanding the root cause of these behaviors and learning healthier ways to cope with stress and emotional pain. This is a crucial step in healing from trauma and living a healthier, more balanced life.

9. Constant alertness

Living in a state of constant vigilance is a common response to trauma. You might find yourself always scanning for potential threats, even in safe environments. This hypervigilance can be mentally and physically exhausting, keeping you in a perpetual state of stress. It’s as if your body and mind are always prepared for danger, even when there is none. This constant state of alert can lead to anxiety, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating. Learning to relax and feel safe can be a significant challenge. It often involves therapy techniques like mindfulness or cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can help retrain your brain to respond differently to perceived threats.

10. Difficulty enjoying success

When you’ve experienced trauma, especially in your formative years, it can be challenging to fully enjoy your successes. You might feel like you don’t deserve good things, or worry that they’ll be taken away from you. This can rob you of the joy and satisfaction that come with achievements, leaving you feeling unfulfilled even when things are going well. Overcoming this mindset involves working on your self-esteem and self-worth. It’s about learning to accept that you are deserving of success and happiness. Celebrating small victories and practicing gratitude can be small steps towards enjoying your successes and acknowledging your worth.

11. Physical health problems

Trauma doesn’t just affect your mind; it can manifest in your body as well. People who have experienced childhood trauma often report chronic physical feelings like headaches, muscle pain, or stomach issues. These symptoms might seem unrelated to your past at first glance, but the body has its own way of holding onto stress and trauma. It’s like the unresolved emotional pain from your past is expressing itself physically. Dealing with these health issues often requires a holistic approach. It’s not just about treating the physical symptoms but also addressing the emotional trauma behind them. This might involve therapy, stress management techniques, and sometimes working with a medical professional who understands the connection between physical and emotional health.

12. Over-responsibility

A group of multi-ethnic friends are happily hugging each others at street market at night.

If you grew up in a turbulent environment, you might have developed a sense of over-responsibility – feeling like you have to take care of everything and everyone. This can stem from having to grow up too fast or from being put in adult roles as a child. It leads to a habit of overworking yourself and feeling guilty whenever you take time for self-care. You might find it hard to relax, always feeling like there’s something you should be doing. Learning to let go of this overresponsibility is crucial for your well-being. It involves setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and understanding that it’s okay to ask for help. Recognizing that you don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders can be liberating and lead to a more balanced life.

13. Social withdrawal

Trauma can make the world feel like an overwhelming place, leading you to withdraw from social activities and relationships. You might find yourself avoiding friends, skipping social events, or feeling anxious in group settings. It’s a way to protect yourself from potential hurt, but it can also lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. You might want to connect with others but find the prospect too daunting or exhausting. Breaking out of this social withdrawal involves taking small steps. It might start with reaching out to a trusted friend, joining a support group, or engaging in activities that you enjoy. Over time, as you build confidence and find safe spaces, you can gradually increase your social interactions.

14. Coping with change

serious guy head in hands

For someone with a traumatic past, change can be particularly scary. You might prefer the familiarity of your current situation, even if it’s not ideal, over the uncertainty of something new. This fear can keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns and prevent you from exploring new opportunities that could improve your life. It’s like you’re frozen in place, unable to move forward. Embracing change requires building up a sense of safety and trust in yourself and the world around you. It’s about taking small steps toward change and recognizing that not all change leads to negative outcomes. Celebrating each small step can help build your confidence and make the process of change less intimidating.

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Phoebe Mertens is a writer, speaker, and strategist who has helped dozens of female-founded and led companies reach success in areas such a finance, tech, science, and fashion. Her keen eye for detail and her innovative approach to modern womanhood makes her one of the most sought-out in her industry, and there's nothing she loves more than to see these companies shine.

With an MBA from NYU's Stern School of Business and features in Forbes and Fast Company she Phoebe has proven she knows her stuff. While she doesn't use social media, she does have a private Instagram just to look at pictures of cats.