A circle of different signs with words in them.

15 Telltale Signs of Childhood Emotional Damage

Have you ever felt stuck? And, I’m not talking about having your shoes stuck to gum (which sucks, by the way). I am referring to finding yourself repeating habits and patterns that cause problems for yourself and others, but you just keep repeating them. But, before you feel sad about yourself, I have some good news. Firstly, you are not stupid, and secondly, there are valid reasons for your behavior.

As a life coach for entrepreneurs, I have worked with extremely intelligent people who made some not-so-smart decisions in various areas of their lives. The reason is because their early childhood experiences had a significant impact on their worldview and how they react to people and situations.

In this article, we will investigate common signs that you or someone you may know may have experienced emotional damage during their childhood. Knowing this information will help you remove shame and self-pity and explore how you can nurture your inner child and end self-destructive tendencies.

Firstly, I would like to share my own personal story. I am doing this because I want you to understand that, while we may not share the exact same experiences, I can relate to you.

A misunderstood survivor

I looked up at the sky and took deep breaths. I allowed the precious gift of oxygen to fill my lungs. The only thought on my mind was, “I can’t believe I survived all of that.” 

Have you ever had the realization that you have shifted from a victim to a victor mindset? 

That realization hit me hard. And although I am a healer, I am also a survivor. 

My emotionally disabled parents lacked the tools to support themselves, let alone their own children. Consequently, I was suspicious, paranoid, and easily upset.

And no matter how much I tried to present myself as “normal,” people around me knew something was off.  Not surprisingly, I couldn’t maintain any close and healthy relationships, whether they were platonic, romantic, or personal.

Raised by wolves 

A former co-worker asked me in front of others, “Were you raised by wolves?” Years later, I can say “yes, I was raised by wild wolves”. All wolves want to do is to thrash around and destroy anyone who seems like a threat. 

For years, I would tell everyone about my parents, what they did to me, and how I hated them. 

Resentment is funny. It does an excellent job of hiding away the pain from grief. Instead of grieving and facing my past pain, I chose to be angry. This led me to decades of self-destructive behavior such as sex addiction and alcoholism

Despite all of this, I discovered something interested while in recovery. And it is the idea that love heals. One can’t say they are healing from past traumatic incidents while still actively holding a grudge against their abusers. That’s why I know how well healing works. 

Go from victim to victor

Victims stay victims because they are more comfortable using resentment to mask their fear and sadness, which disrupts the grieving process. 

If you want to heal and create a new life script, it’s going to require some bravery. 

Being a victor requires seeing everyone, including yourself and your abuser (which could be your parents), in a different light. As you think about yourself, I want you to pause and carefully think over your life.

Next, I want you to read the following signs that you experiences traumatic effects from your childhood.

A black and white picture of people with the words " unless you learn new tools, you will default to your parent 's communication style ".

15 signs of emotional damage from childhood 

Signs of emotional damage from childhood, often resulting from adverse experiences or trauma during one’s formative years, can manifest in various ways. 

Here is the complete list:

  1. Difficulty trusting others
  2. Low self-esteem 
  3. Difficulty in relationships
  4. Emotional instability
  5. Perfectionism 
  6. Self-isolation
  7. Difficulty expressing emotions 
  8. Negative self-talk
  9. Hyper-vigilance
  10. Self-destructive behavior 
  11. Flashbacks or nightmares 
  12. Difficulty coping with stress 
  13. Fear of abandonment 
  14. Difficulty setting boundaries 
  15. Repeating destructive patterns 

It is important to note that these signs can vary from person to person, and not everyone who experiences a difficult childhood will display all of these symptoms listed below. Before each common sign, I will include a thought that illustrates the attitude of an adult who experienced damage during their childhood.

1. Difficulty Trusting Others

If my (fill-in-the-blank family member), could do this to me – nobody is worth trusting.

People who have experienced emotional damage in childhood may have trouble trusting others, as they may have been betrayed or let down in the past. 

2. Low Self-Esteem

 I don’t deserve love or respect.

Childhood emotional trauma can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth, which can persist into adulthood. 

3. Difficulty in Relationships

I struggle to connect with others.

Building and maintaining healthy relationships can be challenging for individuals with childhood emotional damage. They may struggle with intimacy, communication, and conflict resolution.

4. Emotional Instability

I lash out easily and have a short fuse.

Mood swings, emotional outbursts, and difficulty managing emotions are common in individuals who have experienced childhood emotional trauma. 

Some people like to play it cute with their anger and say, “Oh, I can handle my anger.” NO, YOU CANNOT. Anger is sneaky and has a way of distorting your perception of reality, including how you manage your emotions.

5. Perfectionism

I need everything to be perfect to feel in control.

Some people with emotional damage from childhood may develop perfectionistic tendencies as a way to gain control over their environment or to seek approval from others.

6. Self-Isolation

I push people away before they can leave me.

Feeling disconnected from others, they may withdraw socially and isolate themselves, leading to loneliness and a lack of social support.

At the beginning of my recovery journey, I thought nobody knew what my real pain was. Now, I know that it was my own false pride (hubris) talking. I used my pain as a shield to prevent people from getting to know the real me. Pain works overtime to mask the real issues.

7. Difficulty Expressing Emotion

Sometimes I just struggle with how to respond.

Research has shown that childhood emotional trauma can cause difficulty in expressing emotions which may result in emotional numbness or the inability to properly recognize and communicate feelings. 

Being emotionally stunted is common for those who were raised in a painful home. This means that one may be unable to experience the full range of emotions. For instance, they may be comfortable with sadness, but not with fear; or they may be comfortable with fear, but not with sadness. As a child, only the emotion of anger was reinforced and praised since confronting fears and sadness was too much to bear for the parents.

A circle of different signs with words in them.

8. Negative Self-Talk

Why bother trying? It never ends well.

Individuals with emotional damage may engage in self-criticism and negative self-talk, which can reinforce feelings of worthlessness or self-blame.

9. Hypervigilance

You always have to watch your back because someone is willing to stab it in order to succeed.

Constantly being on guard or hyper-aware of potential threats can be a coping mechanism that persists into adulthood.

10. Self-Destructive Behavior

I only feel alive when I push myself to the limit.

Some individuals may engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, self-harm, or risky sexual behaviors as a way to cope with emotional pain.

11. Flashbacks or Nightmares

I don’t sleep well most nights. And when I do sleep, I’m haunted by things I cannot even explain to anyone, including myself. 

For those who experienced traumatic events during childhood, they may have flashbacks or nightmares related to those events.

12. Difficulty Coping with Stress

I can’t do this business called “adulting.” Even making simple decisions like deciding what to for fun makes me feel nervous and stressed.

Childhood emotional trauma can make it more challenging to do the simplest of tasks, leading to feelings of overwhelm and helplessness. 

Some individuals may be so chronically stressed that they constantly feel jumpy, edgy, or anxious. They may then experience a crash from the overwhelming fatigue caused by their past and/or present. Furthermore, individuals may worsen the situation by punishing themselves, calling themselves “lazy” or “unmotivated.”

13. Fear of Abandonment

Its only a matter of time before they find someone better and leave me.

Abandonment issues can develop, leading to a fear of being rejected or left by loved ones, causing fights. Negative or sarcastic comments are often used to hide the fear of abandonment.

14. Difficulty Setting Boundaries

I’m just afraid of being alone, you know? That’s why, when someone wants my attention, for better or for worse, I’ll put up with their behavior.

People with childhood emotional damage may struggle to set healthy boundaries, often allowing others to take advantage of them.

Don’t get mad at yourself if you don’t know what healthy boundaries look like.

For so many of us who came from broken and damaged homes, it’s going to take a moment to really prioritize your feelings when you have been so used to betraying your sense of safety and belonging.

15. Repeating Patterns

Sometimes, I find myself yelling, avoiding, or saying mean things. I am aware that my behavior is unhelpful, but I feel compelled to do it when I am scared or upset.

As mentioned in my story, I had a habit of repeating self-destructive patterns. You or someone you know may also unconsciously repeat patterns of dysfunction or abuse in their adult relationships or in their own parenting.

In the next section, I will share my final thoughts.

Instead of focusing on your unhealthy habits or patterns, focus on why you feel upset, scared, mad, or afraid. Those feelings drive your behavior. And once you allow yourself permission to be curious and compassionate, then you won't be driven to do unhelpful actions.

Final thoughts 

It’s important to remember that healing and recovery are possible for individuals who have experienced emotional damage during childhood. If I can write about trauma and recovery, and live to tell the tale, so can you end self-defeating patterns.

If you are struggling with life, please seek therapy or counseling from a qualified mental health professional. They can help you develop coping skills, build healthier relationships, and work through the emotional scars of your past to lead a more fulfilling life in the present.

If you have moved past the initial stages of healing and need more help with your personal development and recovery work, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Dig deeper by clicking here to listen to this episode from my podcast or press the play button below.