People Who Had Tough and Challenging Childhood Show These 9 Behaviours, According to Psychologists


Individuals who have experienced a challenging childhood often develop behaviors that are reflective of their early life hardships. Psychologists have identified several patterns of behavior that are common among those who have endured such adversity. Here, we explore nine such behaviors, supported by psychological research and historical examples.

1. Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Resilience is a common trait among those who have faced tough childhoods. This behavior is characterized by the ability to bounce back from difficulties and maintain a positive outlook despite past traumas. Psychologists argue that such resilience is developed as a coping mechanism, enabling individuals to navigate through life’s challenges more effectively.

According to a study published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” individuals with adverse childhood experiences often develop a unique form of resilience, which the authors describe as “steel in the soul” (Masten, 2001). This resilience enables them to adapt and thrive in circumstances where others might falter.

Nelson Mandela is a prime example of resilience. Despite spending 27 years in prison, many of which were under harsh conditions, Mandela emerged as a strong leader who led South Africa out of the apartheid era. His childhood, marked by the early loss of his father and the challenges of living under a racially segregated regime, shaped his resilient character.

2. Heightened Empathy

Individuals who have experienced significant childhood adversity often exhibit heightened empathy. They tend to be more attuned to the emotions and needs of others, possibly because they have endured pain and understand what it means to suffer.

A research article in “Psychology Today” suggests that early exposure to emotional pain can enhance empathetic abilities, as individuals learn to recognize and respond to the suffering in others (Baron-Cohen, 2011). This heightened empathy is seen as a direct result of their lived experiences.

Oprah Winfrey, who faced a troubled and impoverished childhood, is known for her extraordinary empathy. Her ability to connect with people from all walks of life and her philanthropic efforts are reflective of her empathetic nature, which is likely rooted in her early life experiences.

3. Perseverance in Goals

Perseverance is another behavior frequently observed in those with challenging childhoods. Despite the odds being stacked against them, they often display an unwavering commitment to achieving their goals, driven by a deep-seated belief in their own capabilities.

Studies in developmental psychology, such as those by Dr. Angela Duckworth, have shown that grit and perseverance are key predictors of success, particularly for those who have faced significant early life challenges (Duckworth, 2016).

J.K. Rowling’s story of overcoming rejection and hardship to become one of the most successful authors in history is a testament to perseverance. Her early struggles, including living as a single mother on welfare, fueled her determination to succeed.

4. Hyper-Vigilance

Hyper-vigilance is a common behavior among those who grew up in unpredictable or unsafe environments. This heightened state of alertness is often a survival mechanism, developed in response to the need to constantly be on guard during childhood.

Research in clinical psychology has documented that children exposed to chronic stress or trauma can develop a persistent state of hyper-vigilance, as noted in a study published in the “American Journal of Psychiatry” (Teicher, 2002).

Malcolm X, who experienced a tumultuous and often dangerous childhood, exhibited hyper-vigilance throughout his life. His early experiences of racial violence and instability contributed to his vigilant and sometimes confrontational demeanor.

5. Difficulty Trusting Others

A tough childhood often leads to difficulties in trusting others. Those who have been betrayed or hurt in their early years may develop a protective mechanism of distrust to avoid future pain.

The link between childhood trauma and trust issues is well-documented in psychological literature, including a study in the “Journal of Psychological Trauma” that explores how early life betrayals affect interpersonal relationships (Freyd, 1996).

Frida Kahlo, whose childhood was marred by illness and injury, often struggled with trust in her personal relationships. Her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, marked by mutual infidelities, reflects her ongoing struggles with trust.

6. Advanced Problem-Solving Skills

Children who face significant challenges often develop advanced problem-solving skills, as they are forced to navigate complex situations from a young age. This can lead to a keen ability to manage and resolve issues effectively in adulthood.

A study in the “Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry” highlights that adversity in childhood can lead to the development of sophisticated cognitive skills, including problem-solving (Rutter, 1999).

Leonardo da Vinci, who had an unconventional childhood, exhibited remarkable problem-solving skills throughout his life. His ability to innovate across various fields, from art to engineering, may have been honed by his early experiences.

7. Intense Creativity

Creativity often flourishes in the face of hardship, as individuals use artistic expression to cope with and make sense of their experiences. Those with tough childhoods frequently exhibit intense creativity, finding solace and expression in various art forms.

Psychological research has shown a correlation between adversity and creativity, suggesting that challenging experiences can fuel artistic expression. This is discussed in the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who explores the link between creativity and life challenges (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

Vincent van Gogh, whose life was fraught with mental illness and emotional turmoil, channeled his struggles into his art, producing some of the most influential works in the history of Western painting.

8. Strong Sense of Justice

A strong sense of justice is often found in those who have experienced unfairness and injustice in their childhood. This can manifest as a desire to correct wrongs and advocate for equity and fairness in society.

Research in social psychology has identified a link between early experiences of injustice and the development of a heightened sense of fairness and justice in adulthood (Tyler & Smith, 1998).

Martin Luther King Jr., who grew up in the segregated South and experienced racial injustice firsthand, became a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement, driven by his strong sense of justice and equality.

9. Emotional Sensitivity

Emotional sensitivity is often heightened in those who have endured a challenging childhood. They may have a finely tuned awareness of their own and others’ emotions, leading to a deep understanding of human nature.

A study in the “Journal of Personality Assessment” suggests that individuals with adverse childhood experiences can develop a heightened emotional sensitivity, which aids in navigating social interactions (Taylor, 2001).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, known for his profound musical compositions, exhibited an exceptional emotional sensitivity, which is often attributed to his strict and demanding upbringing. His ability to convey deep emotions through music speaks to this sensitivity.

In conclusion, the behaviors exhibited by individuals who have faced tough and challenging childhoods are multifaceted and complex. These behaviors, shaped by adversity, not only reflect their past struggles but also their strength, resilience, and unique perspectives on life.

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