8 Low-Key Signs Someone Had A Rough Childhood

These clues aren’t obvious, but they stand out when you know what to look for.

unhappy girl sitting on couch Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock

Recently, I was talking to someone who I’ve known for a while. We were kind of just comparing childhoods, and we both got quiet for a moment.

One of us piped up, "Our childhoods were traumatic, weren’t they?"


Most of the time, conversations like this don’t happen. It’s a thing that you are expected to hide, for the most part. But, once in a while, they happen.

What’s interesting is that having a rough childhood often feels like a "takes one to know one" kind of deal.


Honestly, it’s actually not that type of thing at all.

In many cases, it’s obvious. For example, it’s pretty widely known that people who become career criminals often had rough childhoods. The same can be said for gang members.

However, it’s not always obvious.


There are plenty of highly functional people who are popular, have good relationships, and good careers that grew up in rough situations. They hide their bad childhoods like a pro.

While people hide the scars from their bad childhoods pretty well, it’s easy to spot when you know what to look for. These are the biggest giveaways that someone lived through a rough childhood.

RELATED: 4 Ways Childhood Trauma Haunts You As An Adult (& How To Move On)

Here are 8 low-key signs someone had a rough childhood:

1. They are unusually independent or unusually codependent

The biggest giveaway, at least for me, is how independent a person is in their day-to-day life.


Having a bad childhood tends to mean one of two things: you either were neglected as a kid, or your parents smothered you to death.

If you were a child who was neglected or a victim of parentification, you had to act like an adult from a young age. You may have acted like the parent for an immature mom or dad.

Or, in the case of extreme neglect, you had to raise yourself because your parents were nowhere to be seen.

This often means that you carry yourself with a level of maturity that isn’t normal for your age. When you have to fend for yourself at a young age, you also tend to have a short fuse when it comes to immaturity.

On the other hand, if you had parents who helicoptered you, were narcissistic or committed acts of emotional incest, you might have problems with codependency. At times, it can even manifest as Borderline Personality Disorder.


People who grew up with these kinds of parents "had their legs broken so they couldn’t walk away." 

They became codependent because their parents basically coerced them into codependency and made them feel like they can’t do anything without the nod from another person.

2. They don’t talk about their families, ever

With people who had a healthy relationship with their families, you’ll overhear how they recently talked to their mom or brother. People who have extremely dysfunctional families tend to do the exact opposite. They tend to keep mum on it.

If you ask them what it was like for them growing up, they may even deny anything was wrong.


I’ve seen kids who were products of a cult brush everything off by saying, "Everyone was happy," then ending the conversation there.

On a more obvious note, people who have terrible childhoods are more likely to sever ties with everyone from that time in their lives. It’s a matter of self-preservation, especially if they had abusive parents.

This means they may go no contact with their family members, and at times, they may also choose to stop talking to childhood friends as a way to avoid revisiting the past.

RELATED: 11 Signs You Were Raised By A Bad Mother Or Father (And It's Affecting You Now)

3. They people-please

Most people talk about "fight or flight," but they forget the two other reactions people can have to trauma: freeze and fawn.


"Fawn" is a particularly telling trauma response. When you’re a person who grew up in a broken home, it’s common to be a people pleaser.

It’s a survival skill.

The kid whose dad might beat them if he’s displeased soon learns to walk on eggshells around him. He’ll do anything to make his dad happy or keep him calm — including lying and refusing to put up boundaries.

It’s a commonsense reaction. Not acting like a people pleaser around abusers can lead to potentially lethal consequences, especially when your abuser is twice the size of you or if your abuser controls your food intake.

Even if the damage isn’t physical, dealing with a parent flipping out or screaming in your face if you stand up for yourself is not something any kid wants to do. As a result, people pleasing gets awarded in these kinds of environments.


While being a people pleaser might make your home life more tolerable as a kid, the truth is that you can’t really snap out of it easily when you’re outside of your home. You get stuck with that "fawn" response.

Similarly, people who had very rough childhoods often allow others to abuse them or tear them down. They do it because they are used to it and often lack the self-esteem they need to walk away from people who are bad to them.

4. They apologize for everything

This goes hand-in-hand with surviving abuse. When you have an abusive parent or partner, you get told that everything is your fault — even when it’s not related to you at all. Apologizing is often something you learn to do out of self-preservation.

Your mom’s pissed and screamed at you? Start apologizing.


The cat got sick? Start apologizing.

You flinched? Apologize.

5. They either hoard food or suffer from disordered eating

I have two friends, Sandra* and Marcus.* Both had horrible childhoods that affected them in different ways. Both had very different reactions to how their experiences changed their relationship with food and their food habits.

Sandra had a mom who was a "tiger mom" type. Like many people I know, she grew up in a world of pristine lawns, overachievement, and exclusive country clubs.

Her mom demanded perfection — and that included being pin-thin, dating Johnny Football Star, and getting into an Ivy League college. She developed anorexia and struggles with it to this day.


Marcus, on the other hand, was the polar opposite. His mother was a crackhead who had a penchant for stealing lawn chairs. She was more concerned with scoring than she was with feeding him.

As a result, Marcus learned to hoard food to prevent going to sleep on an empty stomach. He also tends to overeat, often because he still gets scared that he won’t be able to afford food later on.

6. They can’t remember much about their childhood

I remember having a moment with a friend of mine. He had found an old photo album of his childhood and was flipping through it. At one point, he sighed, and said, "I don’t remember taking any of these."

When you experience really bad trauma, your brain might try to protect you by blocking memories out.


Unsurprisingly, many people who had extremely abusive home lives can’t remember their childhoods.

RELATED: My Abusive Father Beat Me As A Child — But Now I'm Facing My Fears Head-On

7. They are perfectionists or obsessed with achievements

Most people expect people who have rough childhoods to be underachieving people, and in many cases, this is true. However, there is another side to a rough childhood that many people forget.


Depending on what happened in your childhood, you could end up getting obsessed with being perfect.

It’s not unusual to hear of children in difficult families who believe that they are only loveable if they overachieve.

One form of abuse that people don’t really talk about is parents who offer conditional love based on their child’s achievement. It was only really recently mentioned in pop culture through Jenette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died.

People who grow up with this type of parenting often equate their achievements with how much love they deserve. And, they are desperate for love. So they end up breaking their backs achieving a bunch of things in hopes of being loved and accepted.


A rough childhood is what I see whenever I hear a guy say, "I earn $100,000 a year and am a corporate CEO! Why won’t women love me?"

8. They clamor for attention

Go to any classroom and find the most attention-seeking kid, and I can almost guarantee you that they have a rough life at home.

The more a person clamors for attention, the more likely it is that it’s a cry for help.

That’s why I never understood why people deride people who are begging for attention or call them "attention whores." If someone keeps asking for people to notice them, chances are that something went terribly wrong with them.

Attention-seeking behavior, particularly acting out, tends to be a sign of a person who grew up with extreme neglect. Getting attention is addictive for them because they never had it when they needed it the most.


RELATED: If You Want To Move Past Your Crappy Childhood, This Is The Best Advice Ever

Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, Newtheory Magazine, and others.