A child’s mind is amazing, capable of quickly learning a new language, adapting to new social situations, and constantly updating itself with new information. In some ways, this adaptability can be a drawback when a child is exposed to traumatic events for which the child has no frame of reference. For this reason, there is a clear link between childhood trauma and addiction. When a traumatic event is beyond children’s ability to process, they often look for relief from the fear and anxiety they experience. In adult life, this coping mechanism often leads to addiction.
There is no objective measure of an event’s traumatic degree. What may be no big deal for one person may drastically alter another person’s life. Events that occur during childhood can take on huge importance seemingly out of proportion to the reality of the situation.
When we think of traumatic childhood experiences, it is natural to think of relatively large events that can occur in a child’s life. Things such as the death of a parent are certainly traumatic, as is any kind of physical violence or sexual abuse of the child. These adverse childhood experiences can have far-reaching consequences.
Beyond these larger issues, there are many experiences that can be extraordinarily traumatic for a child to experience.
Adverse childhood experiences can include:
- Emotional abuse
- Witnessing abuse of others in the home
- Substance abuse in the home
- Parental separation and divorce
- Fire in the home
- Car accident
- Witnessing a violent event
- Incarceration of a family member
- Death of a loved one
Any of these events and many others can cause lasting trauma to a child. The severity of the trauma depends on many factors, including the age of the child, the severity of the event, how close the family member was, and the environment and general mental health of the child at the time of the adverse experience. No matter the source of the trauma, the adverse childhood experience you suffered likely set you on the road to addiction and substance abuse later in life.
How Children Process Trauma
A child’s natural tendency is to seek comfort from anything that causes fear or anxiety. For many people, eating disorders begin with childhood trauma, as children seek comfort from food in escaping the trauma they have experienced. Other comfort-seeking behaviors can include clinging to a blanket or stuffed animal, or clinging excessively to a parent or sibling.
Children are often incapable of dealing effectively with the trauma on their own. With proper counseling and treatment, they can find help in processing the trauma they experienced and finding healthy ways of dealing with anxiety. Unfortunately, many children fail to receive the professional help they need after a traumatic event. Children lack the ability to even put into words the feelings they are experiencing, which can often result in acting out in destructive patterns of behavior. Over time, those destructive patterns can include alcohol and substance abuse.
The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Addiction
When behavior intended to bring relief fails, and the anxiety brought about the trauma remains, the comfort-seeking behavior can escalate later in life. As children age, they can begin to seek comfort in alcohol and other substances to deal with the anxiety they continue to experience as a result of the trauma they experienced as a child. This behavior fails to address the underlying problem as well, and so more and more of the alcohol or other substances are needed to soothe the trauma. Over time, this can result in dependence and addiction if left untreated.
A recent study found a significant increase in substance abuse in those who have experienced an adverse childhood experience. In fact, the number of adverse childhood experiences can function as an accurate predictor of the age at which alcohol abuse begins. There is a clear line between childhood trauma and alcohol or drug abuse later in life.
Effective Addiction Treatment for Survivors of Childhood Trauma
Simply addressing the alcohol or drug abuse problem for those who have suffered childhood trauma may fail to solve the underlying problem that led to addiction in the first place. Addressing childhood trauma and addiction recovery together provides a more holistic approach to treating addiction and provides a greater chance of success.
Substance abuse and trauma are a dual diagnosis, so it’s essential to treat both. Addressing only the substance abuse problem may deal with the symptoms while leaving the root problem unchecked. Likewise, addressing the childhood trauma may address the causes of addiction, while leaving the destructive behaviors that have been learned over time unaddressed. By dealing with both effectively, the sufferer is more likely to overcome their addictions and to find real mental health for perhaps the first time in years.
Dual-diagnosis therapies can include:
- Dialectical behavior therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Acceptance and commitment therapy
- Motivational enhancement therapy
A combination of therapies is needed to provide the unique help each individual going through the recovery process needs. A rehabilitation program that is based on an approach informed by trauma will have a greater opportunity for success for those who suffered childhood trauma leading to their addiction.
There is no magic bullet that can make your addiction go away or solve all the problems caused by your childhood trauma. However, taking the first step of getting into a rehabilitation program that gets to the root causes of your addiction and helps you through the process of dealing with childhood trauma can make a lasting impact on your ability to cope in the future. Finding healthy ways of approaching anxiety and depression will make you less likely to seek the unhealthy behaviors you have turned to in the past, and give you the strength to face your issues well into the future.
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