Why Is Life So Hard?

If life is hard, if you struggle with depression, anger or anxiety, if you feel defeated, if things seem to work out for others but not for you and you have no idea why, this booklet is for you.

All human beings need certain things at certain times in their development to grow into whole, healthy, happy, effective adults. It is the responsibility of the adults in a child’s life to provide those things. Regardless of the reason, if you didn’t get the things you needed, you will face real challenges as an adult. Failure to provide what children need is abuse.

This booklet was written to help you understand and recognize the effects of not getting the things you needed as a child regardless of whether bad things were done to you or good things were withheld. What happened to you is not your fault. Children are never to blame for the actions of adults and you are not to blame for the effects and symptoms that you live with every day. Understanding what was damaged will help you to understand why you think and feel as you do. It will explain your actions, but it will not make them right – it is not an excuse to continue self-destructive activities.

It’s not fair! You are not to blame and yet you are the only one who can fix it. With help, you can learn how to care about yourself and take the steps necessary to repair the damage so that these symptoms no longer cause problems for you or those around you. You can learn how to live a happy and successful life without having to keep on struggling.

It is never too late to reclaim your life!

What is child abuse?

Most people think of ‘child abuse’ as children being beaten or sexually molested, but those are only two of the ways in which children can be damaged. Neglect and abandonment, as well as emotional, spiritual, psychological and verbal abuse, also have devastating effects on children. All forms of abuse do damage to the child, and therefore to the adult they become, whether the abuse was experienced directly or witnessed by the child.

The United Nations’ World Report on Violence and Health (World Health Organization 1999, updated 2014) defines child abuse and neglect as “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligence or commercial or other exploitation resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development, or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power. Exposure to intimate partner violence is also … included”.

In other words, failure to provide what a child requires to become a whole, healthy adult is abuse.

Is it different for boys and girls?

Both Canadian and U.S. Federal Health research studies confirm that at least one in four adult men and women suffered some form of abuse during childhood and that boys experience this as often as girls. The damage is the same regardless of the form of abuse or the gender of the victim.

What if I don’t remember everything?

It is common for people who didn’t get what they needed to have gaps in their memories from childhood. This can be confusing and lead the person to believe their childhood could not have been ‘that bad’.

Children need certain things from the adults in their lives if they are to grow and mature normally. When this does not happen, either because of neglect, active harm being done to the child or witnessing the abuse of someone else, the damage is the same. Not remembering may be a way of protecting oneself from events that were too awful or, as with neglect, may reflect the absence of interaction of any kind leaving the child believing they are unimportant and that their feelings don’t matter. In both cases the child’s self-esteem is destroyed.

Why can’t I leave it in the past?

Not getting what is needed during childhood damages the individual’s view of themselves and their ability to understand and relate to the world around them. These adults usually do not know that what they see, hear and understand has been altered by their past experiences. They act based on inaccurate information and are continually confused and frustrated when things do not go as they had hoped. They believe that what they feel and see and hear is true when in fact it is not.

Their life is ruled by 5 major fears: I won’t know what to do, I won’t do it right, I won’t do enough, People will think I am stupid, lazy or bad and reject me, People will not like me and abandon me and/or by the belief that they don’t count – what I want, think, say, need and feel doesn’t matter.  They cannot fix this by themselves. They need help to fully recover, repair the damage, and learn the skills to live. Road to HOPE allows them to do this.

Common Symptoms of Childhood Neglect, Trauma and Abuse

People who didn’t get what they needed as they grew up are often plagued with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. They may struggle with addictions, tend to fear rejection, have difficulty with anger and confrontation and are often overly concerned with taking care of others to their own detriment. They are haunted by nightmares or flashbacks of their childhood experiences. They find it hard to express a range of emotions and may be moody, feel threatened by personal criticism and are terrified by the possibility of rejection or abandonment.

They are prone to extremes: they fear people or isolation, are dependent or loners, own nothing or hoard everything, antagonistic or timid, promiscuous or avoid intimate relationships, perfectionists or totally apathetic, fear failure or success. They are consumed with their appearance or have poor self-care. Many are insecure and tend to overreact. They seek approval from others, judge themselves too harshly, and often expect more of themselves than they can deliver. They have difficulty predicting outcomes, feel guilty when they try to stand up for themselves and often hold on to bad relationships believing they need to fix the other person. They may be addicted to excitement as a way of feeling in control and blocking the fears and memories from the past. They cannot learn from experience and so remain trapped in a cycle of fear, frustration and failure. Many stop trying.

The damage is done when the child does not get what they need and the resulting high levels of stress appear to be a contributing factor in a number of other conditions including:

  • Addictions
  • Anxiety/stress disorders
  • Backaches
  • Breathing disorders
  • Chest pain
  • Compulsive behaviour
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Eating disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Kleptomania (stealing)
  • Migraines
  • Nausea/dizziness
  • Panic attacks
  • Problems concentrating
  • Rage
  • Self-mutilation
  • Skin issues
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Tension headaches
  • Unexplained pain
  • Various phobias

Understanding What Happened

To recognize what was damaged it is important first to understand what is required for a child to grow up to be a happy and healthy adult.

Four Parts of a Person

Human beings have four parts: mind, body, spirit and emotions. Intellectual, physical and spiritual development continue as long as very basic opportunities exist. People learn even if they do not attend school regularly, grow even if their food is not totally nutritious and they develop some standards or values in their life even without good teaching.

Emotional development is different. There are set stages with specific needs to be met at each level. Each stage must be completed before moving to the next. If this doesn’t happen, the person becomes emotionally ‘stuck’ at that stage. This means that while they may look like an adult, think like an adult when they are calm and have in place a set of values, when they are under emotional stress they will react more like a child without understanding why. Many actually ‘feel like a kid’ when that happens but it is simply that their emotional self is ‘stuck’ because they didn’t get what they needed to develop.

Human Needs

Children need very specific things from the adults in their lives. They have no way to provide these things on their own and when the adults do not provide them, they simply miss out. No parent can perfectly provide all the needs all the time, but children need most of those needs most of the time to become whole, healthy adults who feel good about themselves and are able to understand and interact effectively in their world.

Children need food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, predictability and order, love, acceptance, attention, encouragement, recognition and acknowledgement, privacy and play. An essential piece of a child’s development is attached to having each of these needs met and when they are not, damage results. The needs of children and adults are the same. If children get what they need as they grow, they will be able to meet their own ongoing needs as adults.

Emotional Development

From birth to age three a child sees themselves as an extension of their parent (caregiver). When their cries are answered in a positive and consistent manner they begin to learn trust and self-worth. The expectation of good that they were born with is nurtured and the groundwork is laid for a positive self-image and a sense of security.

From age three to seven the child’s ego is developing and since children tend to see the world in extreme terms (happy or sad, good or bad) they go from being a ‘nobody’ to the ‘center of the universe’. This is the most critical stage because what a child comes to believe about themselves and the world during this period can set patterns that last a lifetime. When their needs are met, the child develops a positive self-image and good self-esteem. They learn trust and self-confidence. Creativity and independence are encouraged. The child learns to set appropriate boundaries, trust their own instincts and value positive social interactions.

When a child’s needs are not met, lasting damage occurs. They not only miss the opportunities to learn and grow as they should, but it teaches them that they are unlovable, worthless, and undeserving. They live with constant fear, guilt and shame and with little hope that life will ever be different. These feelings and beliefs remain as the child grows and becomes an adult. They are reinforced every time something goes wrong. The person knows there is something wrong but has no idea what to do to fix it.  Not having needs met and/or experiencing serious trauma or loss at any stage can cause damage. The results will be more devastating if negative patterns were established early in the child’s life.

Why do the effects last so long and seem to get worse instead of better?

Children develop and mature normally when they have most of their needs met most of the time and children are totally dependent on the adults in their lives to meet those needs. When needs are not met, children come to conclusions that are wrong.

When children do not receive love, they conclude that they must be unlovable; when they are not praised, they conclude that they are a failure; when they are not encouraged they believe they have no potential, etc. As a result, the adult they become goes through life believing they are a failure, unintelligent, unlovable, unworthy and undeserving.  They constantly struggle just to keep going. When difficulties come, it serves only to confirm these mistaken beliefs and keep the person in a self-destructive cycle.

When they are young, adults who didn’t get what they needed can sometimes manage to stay ahead of the past that is pursuing them. As time goes by however, the demands of life grow and eventually there is simply not enough energy to keep all the bad feelings, disappointments and memories under control. Hopelessness takes over and many get desperate or give up.

In addition, many have to contend with ill-informed people laying more guilt on them with comments such as “It happened a long time ago, get over it” or “It’s in the past, forget about it” or “Just forgive them and let go of it” The problem is that, for people who didn’t get what they needed in childhood, it’s not in the past, the abuse happens all over again each time they remember.

What Happens when Children are not Given what They Need?

When a child is not given what they need, they and the adult they become, have low self-esteem and their view of the world is distorted. They cannot accurately interpret other people’s behaviour. This makes it very difficult to function effectively in social situations and leaves them extremely vulnerable to being hurt repeatedly. They believe they are basically ‘bad’ and that the world is not a friendly place. They live in constant uncertainty and confusion, often having no idea how to interpret the behavior of others and even when they think they know, they are often sadly mistaken.

They either trust the wrong people or no one at all. They are continually stressed by social situations. They do not understand what is expected and fear getting it wrong. This produces a condition called hypervigilance where they live in a state of heightened alert. They are constantly on guard trying to figure out what is going on and protect themselves at the same time.

When humans sense extreme danger, a physical response occurs that is meant to protect the individual. Extra blood and oxygen are sent to the heart, lungs and muscles so the person can either attack or run away from the danger. This is called the fight or flight response and is automatic once a certain level of fear is reached. Extra blood and oxygen are diverted from the brain making it impossible to think. We are meant to react instantly, not weigh the possibilities and choose an appropriate response.

Consider an anxiety scale where zero represents the level of anxiety when sleeping calmly and 100 represents the level where one could actually die of fright. Most people going about their normal everyday activities would register at about 20. The fight or flight response kicks in at about 50. Since people who didn’t get what they needed in childhood experience ongoing increased levels of fear (hypervigilance) their normal level of anxiety is closer to 45. They often experience overwhelming fear even when no real danger is present. Their bodies react and because they are so close to fight or flight already, they cannot think, they do things they later regret and then gain a reputation for being irrational.

The overwhelming emotional reaction occurs in situations when a feeling is similar to what they experienced during an event in the past. They do not understand the connection so mistakenly believe that their reaction is warranted and the danger is in the present. It is not. They are having an emotional flashback. This is called a trigger.

What Children Need

Food: adequate food on a regular basis; an eating environment at mealtimes that is peaceful and pleasant; understanding of food as nutrition and fuel for a healthy body (not used as punishment or reward)

Clothing: clothing appropriate to the climate, occasion, and style of peers; items you like, had some choice about and feel good wearing

Shelter: protection from the elements; basic level of cleanliness; safe access to that shelter at all times

Safety: (within home) an environment in which to live and learn unthreatened; a place where you feel protected and welcome

Security: (outside the home or coming into the home from outside) protection when outside home environment; protection from people who come into the home from time to time

Predictability & Order: regular and reasonable routines; consistent responses to circumstances and/or behaviours; appropriate boundaries modeled and respected; appropriate choices, responsibilities and privileges

Love: told regularly “I love you”; touched, held, comforted appropriately (it matters how you feel); made to feel special and celebrated as an individual; behaviour separated from worth (you are good, your behaviour needs to change); forgiven and allowed to start fresh

Acceptance: loved unconditionally; encouraged to express emotion and alternate ideas; allowed to make mistakes without fear

Attention: individual time spent; notice and celebration of preferences; needs identified and promptly met consistently and appropriately

Encouragement: praised for effort even if unsuccessful; encouraged to learn and try new things; opportunity to learn, make mistakes and grow as a result

Recognition & Acknowledgement: praised for accomplishment; validation of what you think, feel, need, want and say; valued for just being you

Privacy: reasonable access to personal space and belongings; time alone when needed or desired; time to think when upset before being expected to deal with a situation

Play: unstructured time to do things simply for enjoyment; taught a balance between work and play

The Needs Wheel can help to assess how well your needs were met as a child. This is not about judging your parents or caregivers, it is about getting an objective picture of where and why there may be areas you struggle with as an adult that relate to your childhood experiences.

Consider each need according to the definition printed on the previous pages. Ask yourself, “Did I get each aspect of that need met most of the time?” Then shade in the corresponding piece of the pie chart to represent how well that need was met when you were five years old or as early as you can remember. Start in the center, where the need was not met at all, and shade toward the outer rim like this.

It is normal for people who did not get what they needed in childhood to have large gaps.

When you have coloured in your wheel, ask yourself, “If this wheel was on the vehicle of my life, how smooth would the ride be?” No wonder life has been difficult. Remember it is not your fault that you didn’t get what you needed. It was the job of the adults in your life to meet your needs.

Understanding Grief

Understanding grieving is fundamental to understanding life. Grief is most commonly associated with death but in fact grieving takes place around all loss: loss of hopes, dreams, expectations, anything that is a change from what was anticipated or should have been. Grief is not optional. Although it may be delayed, it cannot be avoided. Even the smallest of events can trigger the grieving process. For example: A friend calls to cancel a half hour before you are to meet them for lunch. Each of the steps is outlined below.

  • Shock and Denial: “I can’t believe they did that?”
  • Emotional Release: “Oh *&$#!”
  • Inability to Conduct Normal Activities: For a while, you are useless. Nothing gets done.
  • Depression: “Now I’m all alone for lunch.”
  • Anxiety: “Now what am I going to do?”
  • Anger: “How dare they do that?”
  • Guilt: “Did I do something wrong? Is it my fault?”
  • Bargaining: “Maybe if I offer to pick them up or pay for their lunch they could still come.”
  • Acceptance: “Okay, fine, I am not having lunch with that friend today. I need another plan.”
  • Readjustment: “I can stay in and eat in the cafeteria; I can go to the sub shop; I can order pizza. I think I’ll go to the sub shop.”

The bigger the disappointment, or loss, the more time it may take to get through the grieving process. People who didn’t get what they needed when they were young will experience major grief when they start dealing with the loss of their childhood. They also have losses in terms of experiences, relationships, time, potential, opportunities, etc.

Tools for Living

All people need basic tools for interacting successfully with their world. Children need opportunities to learn these skills in a safe, nurturing environment. Without them, people grow up at a serious disadvantage and lack the ability to understand the world around them. It is as if they are being asked to participate in a Life Game without knowing the rules. This leaves them vulnerable to misunderstanding, loneliness, frustration and failure.

There are eight important areas of life where people commonly have difficulty if they didn’t get what they needed as children. Beneath each of the following titles and explanations of how these tools are supposed to work is a description of the ways in which these people commonly approach them. If you see yourself there, no wonder life is hard!

1. Trust

Knowing who and when to trust people is essential to being safe, effective and successful in life. This must be taught. People are not born knowing who to trust. The ability to determine who can be trusted and with what, is essential for making good decisions, setting appropriate boundaries, communicating effectively and having successful relationships. Character demonstrated through the way a person behaves is the only way to tell how much they can be trusted.

When people who didn’t get what they needed cannot figure out who they should trust, they guess. They often choose a category that they think ought to be trustworthy like a professional person. The first time a professional person turns out not to be trustworthy, they conclude that they can no longer trust ANY professional person. Then they choose a new category.

They go from one extreme to the other – they arbitrarily choose a category and trust everyone in it until they have a reason not to trust one person in that category. Then they conclude they can trust no one in that category. They go on to another category and another and another until they conclude, “This doesn’t work. I can’t trust anybody!” So they isolate themselves. After a while they become so desperate to have someone in their life that they trust the next person who comes through the door and are inevitably hurt again.

2. Boundaries

Once you can accurately determine who can be trusted and under what circumstances, it becomes much easier to set appropriate boundaries to keep yourself safe. Boundaries help you decide who should be in your life and to what extent. Setting good boundaries hugely increases the likelihood of having safe and successful interactions of all kinds. Paying attention to the level at which someone may be trusted helps you avoid being hurt by giving private information to the wrong person.  Boundaries, perhaps more than anything else, give you control and power in your life and keep people from treating you badly.

People who didn’t get what they needed when they were young typically either have huge walls of protection around themselves so that nobody gets close or no protection at all so that anybody can come right in. They do not understand that they can decide who is allowed in their life and how close they can come.  They do not see normal danger signs because this was not taught and they are controlled by their needs and emotions. Even when they suffer as a result, they are bewildered, failing to understand what happened and therefore helpless to prevent it from happening again.

3. Decision Making

Life is a never-ending series of decisions. Making good decisions is critical to having a safe, happy and successful life. This requires time, information and a method for determining what is beneficial, enjoyable and possible. You have a right to consider yourself in the choices you make and learn rational ways of identifying and weighing options. When you do, decision making becomes a normal, positive experience.

People who did not get what they needed as children find decision making painful. For them it’s about keeping others happy, being liked and not getting in trouble. They may decide quickly and hope for the best or they may agonize over the decision because of fear it will be wrong. Since this can be overwhelming, they often find it easier not to decide at all or agree with what others want. If they do make a decision there is almost always a period of self-doubt because there was no clear reason for making the choice and there is a fear it will turn out badly.

4. Planning and Organization

Effective planning and organization are essential to achieving your goals and having life turn out well. Learning to give first consideration to what is good for you and understanding the process of setting priorities, lets you become more comfortable standing your ground and keeps you from allowing others to impose their demands or disrupt your plans. Your confidence increases because you know how and why you made each decision.

Making good decisions is not about pleasing others but about making informed choices for yourself giving your life order, predictability and control so that you can fulfill the responsibilities you have appropriately identified as yours.

Because people who didn’t get what they needed arbitrarily base their decisions on the reactions and approval of other people, their ability to follow through is negatively impacted when others challenge their decision in any way.  And because they usually do not have well thought out reasons for making the choice in the first place, they readily change their plans to accommodate them. The wants and needs of other people count more than their own. They have difficulty saying “no” (unless they are angry) and often end up taking on responsibilities that do not belong to them leading to things turning out badly for everyone.

5. Communication

Communication forms the basis of human interactions in the world. Being able to talk to others about what you think, feel, need and want is vital. Listening and being able to interpret messages effectively is also necessary to understanding what is happening in any situation. The best communication occurs in an atmosphere of calm. It also helps to know something about the person with whom you are communicating and their state of mind to avoid being misunderstood. As you have positive experiences, you build confidence in your ability to understand what you hear, express something worthwhile and communicate that to others.

People who didn’t get what they needed as children are often not good at communicating effectively. They will promise what they think others want to hear without being realistic about what they can achieve. Their need to please, be accepted and avoid conflict takes precedence over everything else. They do not intend to mislead but often cannot do what they have promised.

If talking about what they think is hard, expressing feelings is even harder. They often feel they have to keep up an image so the world doesn’t see how bad they feel they are. They are always worried about being found out. Negotiating is almost impossible because they so easily feel threatened. All of this makes communication very complicated.

6. Relationships

Human beings are meant to live in relationship with others. In good relationships, there is a benefit to both parties based on trust, appropriate boundaries, good communication, equality and mutual respect. Meaningful relationships result when individuals have clear expectations about what they want and need, know who to trust, select their friends and partners wisely, communicate effectively, and allow time to accurately evaluate the overall benefit. It is essential for both people in the relationship to be satisfied!

When children do not get what they need from their caregivers, as adults, they often try to have those needs met by the people around them. They look to others to make them “feel” good. This is destructive to those relationships and leads to unrealistic expectations and misplaced blame. Their issues with communication and trust make it extremely difficult to build and maintain healthy relationships. They don’t understand the effect of what they do and say on the people around them and they often misinterpret what others do and say to them. They stick with what they know, even if it is not good, rather than face the fear and uncertainty of something new.

They may repeat the patterns that are familiar from childhood – like staying with an abusive partner because they were not taught as children that they deserved to be treated well. They don’t understand they have the right to something better. Because they blame themselves when things go wrong they accept the blame for their partner’s behaviour as well. They keep trying to figure out what they can do to make the situation better. Fear of abandonment also keeps them in relationships where there is little chance for success.

7. Intimacy

Intimacy refers to the closest relationships people have with others where their innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes and dreams are shared with another person. In the case of a partner, this also includes physical intimacy. Intimacy requires a level of risk and vulnerability. When you are comfortable with who you are and accept and love yourself, you can give and receive love and expresses it through intimacy.

Intimacy is difficult for people who didn’t get what they needed as children. They find it hard to talk about what they think and how they feel. They don’t know who they can trust and relationships, in general, are difficult. It is no surprise then that they are often unable to tell their partner what they like, what they don’t like, what feels good, what is uncomfortable, etc. Communication at that level is very hard and often just doesn’t happen. Their ability to relax and enjoy their relationship with their partner is seriously marred by their own feelings of inadequacy and failure, their misinterpretation of communication, and their need to please.

Thoughts and feelings directly affect the body. Sexual intimacy often has more to do with thinking and emotions than with function. When someone is afraid, feeling bad about themselves or under any other kind of pressure, physical response and enjoyment will be negatively impacted. Leftover feelings of failure, inadequacy, betrayal, guilt and shame all impact their ability to relax and enjoy their relationship with a partner.

8. Authority

Relating well to those in authority is an essential life skill. Learning to be effective when you are the one in a position of authority or power is also important.

People who didn’t get what they needed when they were young find it confusing and stressful to deal with authority figures because the abuse they suffered as children took place at the hands of people in positions of power and trust. For some, their need to be liked leads to submissiveness and a lack of assertiveness while for others their fear causes them to be defensive and confrontational. Both approaches are extreme and equally ineffective over time. They are reactions to the fear that constantly haunts them.

All eight of these tools are included in Road to HOPE where you can also learn to repair the damage caused by not getting what you needed in childhood and live completely free from the past. You deserve to be healthy, happy and whole.

It is never too late to reclaim your life!

Contact EmmausCARES for details and to learn about groups meeting in your area.


Published in Canada by Emmaus International Support Services
Copyright © 2012 Ruthe Murphy
First published in 2005 under the title Life after Childhood Abuse

All rights reserved. Additional copies may be downloaded from the website or requested by email through the website.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
CIP data on file with the National Library and Archives

Printed in London, Canada
ISBN 978-0-9879527-3-8