People Who Felt Constantly Criticized as Children Usually Develop These 13 Traits as Adults, Psychologists Say

If you've scrolled parenting Instagram or MomTok, you may have seen the line: "The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice." It's by Peggy O'Mara, and the one-time owner of Mothering Magazine had a point.

"Childhood is a critical time for development," says Dr. Beth Pausic, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with Kooth Digital Health. "On an emotional level, this development includes forming our self-identity, learning emotional regulation, developing social skills and emotional resilience. While this developmental process is influenced by multiple factors, one main contributing factor is our relationship with our caregivers."

Interactions are fundamental. Children who feel secure and supported are likelier to go on to have healthy relationships with themselves and others. Kids who are constantly criticized may hear a caregiver's voice on repeat in their heads—it's now their inner critic.

"If a parent/caregiver is consistently critical, it can set a foundation for the development of unhealthy behaviors and a negative self-image," Dr. Pausic says. "If conditions in childhood tend to be overly critical, it can put the child at a disadvantage in developing a healthy self-concept and may also influence their relationships and well-being."

It may also prompt them to have several (or all) of these 13 traits that people who felt constantly criticized as children often display in adulthood. 

Related: 9 Phrases To Use Instead of Automatically Saying Yes, According to Psychologists

13 Telltale Traits of People Who Were Constantly Criticized As Children, According to Psychologists

1. Low self-esteem

So, you were constantly told that you didn't deserve love, kindness or respect as a child (verbally or through actions that speak louder than words). Low self-esteem isn't a stretch—in fact, it's basically expected.

"It logically follows that you would believe those things, especially if you are not given other possible choices," says Dr. Erisa M. Preston, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and the regional psychotherapy director at Mindpath Health.

Dr. Preston says a few signs of low self-esteem are poor eye contact, slumped posture and difficulty advocating for yourself.

2. Perfectionism

If failure wasn't tolerated in childhood, it's natural to strive to get it right 100% of the time in adulthood—even if you cognitively know perfection doesn't exist. And yet? Impossible expectations are your norm.

"A child can learn that what they do is never good enough and will try to meet impossibly high expectations and standards as a way to please their caregivers," Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, Ph.D., a psychologist and the Hope for Depression Research Foundation media advisor. "That is why you may set high expectations for yourself and have a hard time finishing things until they are perfect."

Related: People Who Felt Lonely as Children Usually Develop These 13 Traits as Adults, Psychologists Say

3. Negative self-talk

That inner critic is a beast in people who were constantly criticized as children.

"The criticism provided by caregivers can become something that the child (and later as an adult) continues on their own," Dr. Pausic says. "Often, these adults are harsh self-critics and have difficulty breaking this pattern."

4. Difficulty accepting compliments

Negative self-talk can also make it hard to let some positivity into your life, even when it comes from people you love and respect.

"When someone constantly criticizes you, genuine compliments can feel confusing or undeserved," says Dr. Gayle MacBride, Ph.D., LP of Veritas Psychology Partners.

Dr. MacBride says that if you or a loved one constantly responds to compliments with phrases like, "It wasn't that great. I could have done better," you need some help healing your inner child from constant criticism.

Related: Here's Why Taylor Swift Has the Perfect Response to Compliments, According to a Therapist

5. Being hyper-critical of others

People who were chronically put down as kids may not just be hard on themselves. Dr. Preston says they may also consistently look for faults in others or assume the worst in people without giving them the benefit of the doubt. It's all part of a vicious cycle that is challenging to break.

"You learn as a child that it is normal, expected and acceptable to speak to people in contemptuous and derisive ways," Dr. Preston says. "If that is predominantly what you have known, you would believe those are normal and appropriate ways to communicate with others."

6. Hyper-defensive attitudes

People who are criticized frequently as kids can feel like they're constantly under a microscope, and all their caregivers see is flaws. 

"As a result, you learn to anticipate those criticisms, defend yourself at a moment’s notice, and protect yourself in ways you may not have been able to as a child," Dr. Preston says.

You may struggle with constructive feedback, even when taking it can improve your life.

Related: 17 Phrases To Respond to Constructive Criticism, According to Psychologists

7. People-pleasing

Do you have issues saying no to outings that don't really interest you? Do you have a nagging feeling that you're the last person on your priority list?

"A child who was frequently criticized might try to people-please or overly anticipate someone’s needs to avoid even the appearance of negativity," Dr. MacBride says. "They may prioritize others' needs over their own and have difficulty setting boundaries."

8. Self-reliance

Wait, isn't self-reliance an admirable trait? It can be. 

"But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing," Dr. MacBride says. "These people become independent and resourceful but also can struggle to trust or connect with others. These individuals have learned 'I’m the only one who will be there for me,' and as such, they operate more like a 'lone wolf.'"

Remember, it's OK to ask for help when you need it.

Related: 10 Red Flags There's a Narcissist in Your Family, According to Therapists

9. Social anxiety

Anxiety, including in social settings, is common in people who spent their childhoods in highly critical settings.

"If we grow up in an environment where negative and critical feedback is consistent and constant, we may experience a lot of social anxiety because we never know when we are going to be on the receiving end of critical feedback," Dr. Lira de la Rosa says. "This anxiety can transform into social anxiety in adult relationships, and we may worry about what others are thinking about us and fear that we will upset them."

10. Comparison

Comparison is the thief of joy—it's also something many people struggle with.

"However, children who are consistently criticized will overly rely on comparing themselves to others because they may not have learned to trust their own skills and abilities," Dr. Lira de la Rosa says. "As adults, they may constantly compare themselves to other people and beat themselves up for not being like everyone else because they feel inadequate."

11. Constant apologizing

"I'm sorry" can be powerful. However, saying it all day, every day, may be a flag. 

"Children may learn to apologize as a way to survive in a highly critical environment," Dr. Lira de la Rosa says. "They may continue to engage in this behavior as adults and may apologize for making mistakes or simply being themselves."

Related: 10 Phrases To Replace Saying 'Sorry' as a Reflex, According to a Therapist

12. Trust issues

Trust is key to relationships, and people who grew up under constant criticism may struggle with it.

"When a child's primary caregivers are critical, it can be difficult for them to trust others' intentions or motivations," Dr. MacBride says. "Humans are a deeply social species that crave belonging and connection. Criticism tends to bring shame and severs the feeling of belonging. They may be guarded in their relationships and have difficulty forming close bonds."

13. Difficulty regulating emotions

"Just relax" and "You're too sensitive" may have been constant lines you heard—even though stress, anger and sadness are all normal. Childhood is a time to learn this fact and how to cope.

"If children do not learn that their emotions are valid and normal, they can have challenges regulating their emotions as adults," Dr. Lira de la Rosa says. "Moreover, when children grow up in a highly critical environment, they may experience difficulties regulating what we call 'negative emotions.' They may feel them very intensely and do not know how to self-soothe during these moments."

Related: 8 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother and How To Heal—According to Psychologists

How to Silence Your Inner Critic and Heal Your Inner Child

1. Validate your feelings

Your caregivers may not have told you your feelings are valid, but they were and are. Ditto for your lived experience.

"If you are healing from negative childhood experiences, remember that your younger self did the best to survive an invalidating and chaotic environment," Dr. Lira de la Rosa says. "As you begin to heal, it is possible that you are learning to honor and feel your emotions."

Take time to honor your emotions.

"This means that emotions will start slowly, sometimes rather quickly, and reach a really high point, but they will eventually subside," he explains. "We can learn to ride this emotional wave, and by doing this, we are allowing ourselves to heal and process emotions that we likely did not get a chance to process in childhood."

2. Practice self-compassion

As you acknowledge your feelings, treat yourself with kindness and understanding.

"Often, I ask my clients to consider their self-talk," Dr. MacBride says. "If it's not something they would tolerate hearing from a friend, they shouldn't say it to themselves. It is critical that we speak to ourselves in ways consistent with how we expect others to treat us."

3. Seek professional support

You don't have to go it alone (looking at you, self-reliant types).

"Depending on the impact of the childhood criticism, it can be highly beneficial to speak with a mental health professional who can provide guidance and assess the impact your childhood has had on your current functioning." Dr. Pausic says. "They can provide strategies and tools for you to move past negative self-images and improve your confidence."

Support groups can also help.

4. Put it in the past (where it belongs)

Dr. Preston knows this one is easier said than done.

"However, when you focus your current and future life on past events, you are looking backward instead of forward," Dr. Preston says. "Look at what you want for the future. Look at what you want for your current life. Determine what you need to do to get to that picture you have for yourself."

Next: People Who Were Introverted as Children Usually Develop These 11 Traits as Adults, Psychologists Say

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