• Candace Whitman, LCPC

When Your Childhood Hijacks Your Life As An Adult


Kids Are Resilient

It’s amazing how resilient we are in childhood. It feels like we were able to get through horrible situations unscathed.


Yet, if you’re like me, you may wonder why you could be so strong in childhood, but now you get easily overwhelmed, stressed, and stuck in repeating unhealthy patterns as an adult.


I wondered that too for a long time.


Childhood Was Rough--But I Was Tough

I grew up with a mother who suffers with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and addiction. To say my childhood was pretty awful is putting it lightly.


Yet, I still managed to appear successful and well adjusted.


The adults in my life often commented about how mature and responsible I was despite my childhood experiences. I had really good grades. I worked a job throughout school. I was pretty dang responsible and successful.


If the adults were so impressed with how well I turned out, why did I feel so awful all of the time?


Things Got Worse

The older I got, the more aware I was of the amount of emotional effort it took to get through the day.


The further I got away from my childhood, the more I felt consumed with the backlash of growing up the way I did.


How did that work? I managed to survive. I distanced myself from my family. I went to college and even went to grad school and got a masters degree in counseling.


How was it that I was continuing to get worse?


Complex Trauma

Well, it turns out I had all the symptoms of PTSD.


When my therapist diagnosed me with PTSD, it didn’t make sense to me because I had not had any big, traumatic experiences.


Well, it turns out that trauma can be repeated, smaller events that happen over time. These smaller events, when they happen during the developmental stages of childhood, can have incredible impacts on a child’s development.


And it did have a tremendous impact on my development.





Just Surviving

It turns out, my way of surviving meant that I needed to appear like the perfect child. It meant that I needed to be very well behaved, good in school, responsible.


It took all my effort, energy, and focus to do all the things I needed to do to get praise from the adults in my life.


I was indeed very successful at that. But I wasn’t successful in many other aspects of my life.


I had almost no friends. I had a slew of really unhealthy romantic relationships. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth, and no self-value.


I didn’t know it then, but I was too busy surviving to realize that I was missing out on being a child.

That means I missed out on healthy development too.


I never really learned how to communicate my emotions. Heck, I never really even understood my emotions, let alone how to communicate them.


I didn’t know what I needed or how to ask for it. I didn’t even understand basic hygiene until I was a teenager and realized I ought not “bathe” in the dirty pond before heading to school.


It Carried Over Into Adulthood

It was no wonder I had no friends growing up, and it was no wonder I had such a hard time making and keeping friends as an adult.


I never really had the opportunity to learn how to do that growing up. Just like I never learned how to do a lot of things kids learn to do if they have healthy development.


It may have appeared that I got out of my childhood unscathed because I was good in school and responsible.


But it became more and more clear into adulthood that I was hurt very deeply and that the damage wasn’t going to just magically disappear the further I got away from my childhood.


Complex Trauma Is…..Complex

Those small things that happened repeatedly during childhood are likely impacting you today, too.


Even if you don’t consider your childhood bad enough to be called traumatic, the impact can still be huge.


It may be easier for you to call it “a bad childhood.” No matter what you call it, it impacts your ability to develop in a healthy way.


Childhood experiences dictate how you feel about yourself and see yourself in relation to those around you. Your childhood experiences determine how you feel about your role in this world. They dictate how to cope with stress and how you deal with your emotions.


They impact your physical health, your emotional health, your ability to communicate, your thoughts about yourself and others, your actions and behaviors, and your spiritual life.


Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself

A lot of people who grow up with bad experiences in childhood think they should be better by now. They think they should be stronger and better able to handle things. They think they should be able to move on from their childhood experiences already.


Don’t be so hard on yourself. There’s a lot of reasons life is hard for you, and it isn’t because you are weak. It’s also not your fault.



Getting Help

If you think it’s time to reach out for help, find a therapist who is trauma informed and understands the complexity of the impacts of trauma in childhood.


Life doesn’t have to stay quite so hard. Time may not magically make it better, but it can get better with the right combination of understanding, knowledge, and connecting with safe people.


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