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Child Development

5 Personality Traits Linked to a Painful Childhood

The consequences of childhood adversity persist into adulthood.

Key points

  • High-impact events in childhood can include abuse, neglect, divorce, and chaos in the home.
  • Childhood adversity is linked to personality traits such as high negative emotion and a focus on external success.
  • These personality traits may have developed in part as a way to protect a person from additional pain and loss.
  • Although personality is relatively stable, it can be changed.
Halfpoint Shutterstock
Source: Halfpoint Shutterstock

Multiple studies have found that adult personality is significantly affected by painful experiences in childhood (Hughes et al., 2017), such as:

The following traits are linked to childhood adversity (Carver et al., 2014; Rosenman & Rodgers, 2006).

1. Neuroticism

A difficult childhood places a person at risk of experiencing a high degree of negative emotion. They may be prone to depression, worry, anger, panic, or other forms of anxiety. Once the person is upset, it may be hard to recover. These emotional difficulties are understandable given that the person probably experienced a lot of difficult emotions as a child, without learning how to manage them.

2. Anger, Aggression

Leszek Glasner/Adobe Stock
Source: Leszek Glasner/Adobe Stock

Related to high neuroticism, childhood adversity also predisposes a person to be angry, hostile, and verbally or physically aggressive. They may also tend to act impulsively. These behaviors may have been learned from observing them as a child; they may also have developed as a protective measure against loss or maltreatment.

3. Low Agreeableness

Those who were mistreated or neglected early in life are more likely to be hard to get along with and to get into frequent arguments. They might have a hard time cooperating with others, preferring instead to “go it alone.” These tendencies may be related to experiencing a lot of negative emotions, including irritability and anger.

4. External Success Orientation

Early negative life experiences can lead to arrogance and an unhealthy form of pride, perhaps to bolster an underlying sense of inadequacy or vulnerability. On a related note, the person will tend to crave fame and financial success, often in an effort to ease the pain and privation of the past.

5. Low Engagement

Despite their focus on external success, the person may struggle to find true engagement in life. They may lack a clear sense of purpose and have a hard time finding constructive activities they care about and enjoy. They might also struggle to be productive and complete tasks and may find it hard to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments. Socially they will tend to be independent, or even aloof.

Making Peace with Your Past

It may be painful to recognize yourself in these traits, which generally are not considered desirable personality characteristics. It might feel like double jeopardy—being wounded in childhood and then carrying the scars as an adult. But you might extend yourself some compassion. The personality you’ve developed is understandable, and even predictable—exactly what we would expect based on existing research. As Roseman and Rodgers (2006) concluded, “Consequences of childhood adversity prevail throughout the lifespan.”

Consider the things you’ve managed to accomplish in your life, despite the early challenges you lived through, like the friends you’ve made and the successes you’ve had. Remember also that you’re not alone; painful childhoods are tragically common, so there are countless others who share in your history of suffering. You might find yourself drawn to these individuals, recognizing even unconsciously a similar background and understanding of the world.

The personality traits described here probably developed as ways to protect yourself from further pain. And while adversity may have formed a protective shell around your heart, it didn’t steal the love you have to give. Beneath a tough exterior is a gentle heart that longs to give and receive love from those who care enough to get to know you—the real you.

Reason to Hope

While personality is relatively stable, research shows that it can change over time. Personality change can happen relatively quickly—in as little as four weeks—with some form of treatment (psychotherapy or medication). The trait that’s most responsive to treatment is neuroticism, or the tendency to experience negative emotion.

A painful childhood may have shaped who you are, but it doesn't have the final say in who you will become. Consider starting therapy if you haven’t already. You might also try out this simple exercise, adapted from Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as a way to change your relationship with negative emotions:

Look for an opportunity today to practice a different way of relating to difficult emotions. If you’re feeling angry, for example, become curious about the experience. Sense anger as a pattern of energy in the body. Study what’s happening in the mind as if you’re an “emotionologist.” Open to whatever you find, and notice whether this approach shifts your emotional experience.

You can search for a therapist using the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Want to see how you score on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Quiz? Visit this site.

Carver, C. S., Johnson, S. L., McCullough, M. E., Forster, D. E., & Joormann, J. (2014). Adulthood personality correlates of childhood adversity. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1357.

Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy: A simple path to healing, hope, and peace. HarperOne.

Hughes, K., Bellis, M. A., Hardcastle, K. A., Sethi, D., Butchart, A., Mikton, C., ... & Dunne, M. P. (2017). The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health, 2, e356-e366.

Rosenman, S., & Rodgers, B. (2006). Childhood adversity and adult personality. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 482-490.

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