Childhood Trauma Influences The Development Of Addiction

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.

Childhood Trauma and Alcoholism

childhood trauma and addictionA study published in the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research revealed insight into the relationship between childhood abuse and later alcohol abuse. The study showed that childhood trauma from abuse or neglect was significantly more commonplace among men and women who were currently looking for treatment for a drinking problem. 

Furthermore, the severity of their drinking problems was directly related to the severity of their abuse during childhood. In short, the greater the childhood abuse or neglect, the more severe the adult drinking problem will be.

Durg Addiction and Trauma

Beyond these larger issues, there are many experiences that can be extraordinarily traumatic for a child to experience. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can include:

Emotional Abuse 

Adults who were abused or neglected as children are more likely to develop chronic health problems including:

Physical Abuse

Children who are physically abused are at risk for developing:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Drug or alcohol dependence
  • Increased likelihood of child abuse as a parent

Sexual Abuse

Research has shown repeatedly that child sexual abuse can have a serious impact on physical and mental health as well as sexual adjustment later in life. As abused children grow older they are more likely to:

  • Engage in self-harm
  • Abuse substances 
  • Take part in high-risk behaviors
  • Exhibit random sexual behavior
  • Show signs of social isolation
  • Commit suicide or have suicidal thoughts

Witnessing the Abuse of Others in the Home

Children are affected severely by witnessing physical abuse of another person in their home. It was discovered that one-third of children who witnessed the battering of their mother demonstrated marked behavioral and emotional problems. Effects on children may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety, fears, compulsive behavior
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Low self-esteem

Children who witness physical abuse are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of physical abuse as adults.


Childhood neglect and maltreatment can have lifelong and even impact across generations. These issues can be linked to later physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Neglect may stunt the physical development of the child’s brain and lead to problems like low self-esteem which can lead to high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse. Furthermore, children who experience neglect are often affected by other injurious experiences such as:

  • Substance use by parents
  • Domestic violence
  • Poverty

Substance Abuse in the Home

It’s common for substance abuse behavior in adulthood to be patterned on a friend or family member’s substance abuse behavior that had been seen during childhood. The tendency to self-medicate can also be displayed and passed on.

Parental Separation and Divorce

Divorce creates turmoil for the whole family, and for children the situation can be scary, confusing, and frustrating. But for some children, the separation isn’t the hardest part. It’s the stressors that go with it that are the most difficult. Changing schools, moving to a new home, and living with a single parent are a few additional stressors. Children of divorced parents also experience:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Conduct disorders
  • Academic problems
  • The risk for mental health problems in children and adolescents
  • Risky behavior such as substance abuse and early sexual activity

House Fire (or Other Home Catastrophes)

According to research, children and adolescents react in a variety of ways when dealing with a house fire including:

  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Sleep disorders

Parents are the main source of the child’s security and need to serve as a positive role model during this time. Failure to fulfill their emotional needs can result in self-medication through substance abuse in the future.

Car Accident

Several studies have been conducted to understand the effects on children who have been involved in a car accident. More than 50% of them suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms and almost 40% show signs of travel anxiety and almost 25% are noticeably depressed. Other effects include:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Emotional outbursts

Witnessing a Violent Event

Results from a large national survey found that nearly 40% of adolescents have witnessed community violence. Witnessed violence is linked to behavioral problems and trauma-related symptoms. It is associated with:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Emotional problems
  • Delinquent behavior
  • Health risk behaviors
  • Poor school performance

Incarceration of a Family Member

Children with an incarcerated parent were more than 3 times more likely to have behavioral problems or depression than similar children without a parent in prison. They are also at least 2 times as likely to have:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Anxiety

Death of a Loved One

Psychiatrists have been generally surprised by how often childhood loss appears to result in mental health disorders. Studies of adults with mental disorders, particularly depression, often reveal childhood grief and mourning. This suggests that such loss may bring about or contribute to the development of a variety of psychiatric disorders and can make the person emotionally vulnerable for life. 

According to clinicians and ACE studies, about 64% of people have at least one adverse childhood experience. This can double to quadruple the likelihood of using drugs or alcohol, especially at an early age. An ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and lung cancer. In addition, it increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700%.

People with a score of 5 or higher are 7 to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs and become addicted. These studies also show that it doesn’t matter what type of trauma the person experienced. Different combinations of ACEs generate the same statistical health consequences.

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 a person suffered likely set them 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 even 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 do not receive the professional help they need after a traumatic event. Children sometimes 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 by 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. So an individual may use more and more alcohol or other substances 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 

recovering from childhood trauma and addictionSimply 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 dual diagnoses, 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:

A combination of therapies is necessary 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.

Reach Out to Harmony Place Today

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. Reach out to Harmony Place today to receive the help and hope you deserve.