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Childhood Trauma and Its Influence on Addiction

by Landmark Recovery

December 30, 2020

Everyone from scientists and therapists to doctors, addicts, and their loved ones have a simple question: what led to addiction? The truth is that addiction can stem from any number of things. For years, researchers have been trying to find links between a person’s biological, social, or experiential background that led to a life of addiction. One area to which researchers are devoting a lot of time is childhood trauma and the role it plays in addiction. We’ll be taking a closer look at this issue today.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Children are vulnerable and unfortunately exposed to trauma quite frequently. Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) shows that by the age of 16, more than two-thirds of all children will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives.

There are many things that are potentially traumatic to children. In addition to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, some other traumas include:

  •         Violence in school or the community
  •         Loss of a loved one
  •         Life-threatening accidents or illnesses (12% of physically ill children and 19% of injured children will experience post-traumatic stress disorder)
  •         Natural disasters (54% of US families have been impacted by disasters of some kind)
  •         Experiencing war or becoming a refugee
  •         Stress related to being in a military family
  •         Witnessing domestic violence
  •         Physical and sexual assault (1 in 4 high school students will experience physical violence)
  •         Neglect

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect People?

In the mid-1990’s, researchers at Kaiser Permanente joined forces with the CDC to study how childhood trauma impacted adults. They gathered data from 17,000 Americans and compiled the research into the ACE Report.

The ACE study reported that adverse childhood events heavily correlate to the child’s future. The researchers linked adverse childhood experiences to things such as:

  •         Chronic health problems
  •         Health behaviors that are risky (such as unsafe sex)
  •         Limited education leading to limited career potential and low income
  •         Mental health problems
  •         Premature death
  •         Suicide

The more trauma a child is exposed to, the more likely they are to experience the above issues in adulthood. Of the adults questioned by the researchers, 1 in 5 had experienced at least 3 adverse events, which means that many of those adults are at high risk for health problems.

Adapting to Trauma

Children who experience trauma sometimes grow into adults who often cannot cope with the trauma they’ve endured.

  •         51% of women and 61% of men in the US report experiencing trauma
  •         More than two-thirds of those seeking treatment for addictions report experiencing one or more traumatic events
  •         Of people being treated in behavioral health settings, 90% have experienced trauma (addiction and behavioral health are closely linked, too)
  •         People who abuse substances are three times more likely to experience assault when compared to people who don’t use drugs or alcohol

Childhood Trauma and the Path to Addiction

After the ACE study was conducted, many more researchers branched off to delve deeper into these issues.

In one study, researchers considered the parents of the ACE study participants. When looking into the alcohol habits of the parents, the researchers found that in households where parents abused alcohol, all of the ACEs were more likely to occur. They then considered 8 of the 10 traumatic experiences on the ACE survey and found that every one of them was connected to alcohol abuse in adulthood. They found that adults who experience traumas as children were four times as likely to become an alcoholic, and two to four times as likely to marry an alcoholic.

Coping with Childhood Trauma

When children are being abused or left feeling abandoned, when they are scarred or damaged by their childhood experiences – they turn to other things to help them cope with life. A 2006 study showed that when ACEs aren’t addressed properly, adolescents often start to experiment with alcohol which often leads to a much higher risk of substance abuse as an adult. Children who experience adverse childhood events are also more likely to be smokers, and the more traumatic events children are exposed to the higher the chance of prescription drug abuse. Lastly, SAMHSA reports that with every ACE experienced, the child is 2-4 times more likely to use illicit drugs or become dependent upon drugs as an adult.

What Comes Next?

While we still don’t have a definitive answer to the “what led to addiction” question, thanks to dedicated researchers, we do know that childhood trauma is one thing that is influential. It is unfortunate that so many children in our world will experience trauma, and many of them will further perpetuate trauma on themselves by abusing drugs or alcohol. It is difficult to live life with addictions, and at Landmark Recovery we genuinely want to help you get better. We have the knowledge and resources to help you work through your childhood trauma and to help you address your addictions head on. To start down a better path to a brighter future, call us today at 888-448-0302.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.