Exploring Childhood Trauma and Addiction

There is increasing research linking trauma in a person’s childhood to the formation of addiction either in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are strongly correlated to addiction in older adulthood and can manifest earlier in that person’s life into childhood addiction. Exposure to trauma can impact childhood and adolescence development and evolve into addiction at an older age.

Substance abuse exists as a way to self-medicate. The person who is turning to the addiction is doing so in some way to relieve feelings of distress and masked or numb, deep pain.

Maladaptive coping mechanisms can be formed and depend upon environmental and genetic conditions in the person’s life. When a child experiences 1 to 4 tiers of adverse childhood experience, like psychological abuse and neglect, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect, the desire to escape emotional pain and pressure can trigger the formation of addiction, whether to alcohol or drug use, or both.

These occur most commonly in vulnerable, marginalized populations, where childhood addiction is co-originating with childhood traumatic events and can ensue for a prolonged period or go untreated by childhood trauma therapists. One of the best ways to treat the child or adult suffering from this dynamic is to take a skilled childhood trauma therapist who uses trauma-informed care, focused on attaining sobriety and then addressing their past and the origin of their issues.

Childhood Addiction as an Adolescent 

There is a highly correlated risk for adult substance abuse when a child is exposed and starts to use alcohol and other drugs. Drug use and childhood addiction in adolescents are linked to chronic problems in this population. Certain signs of childhood addiction and adolescent drug use are:

  • Underachievement
  • Poor academic performance
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Depression

Drug use during adolescence can lead to adverse effects in the family environment. Some of those effects include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor school performance
  • Parental rejection and disapproval
  • Alienation and peer pressure
  • Family dysfunction
  • Abuse and divorce

Early use in life makes an enduring impact and most likely will lead to future use in adulthood. With limited family and social support, childhood addiction may start sooner when a child is helpless to control their conditions. The early employment of therapy with a childhood trauma therapist can possibly aid in breaking this intergenerational curse of addiction within the family line.

Origins of Childhood Addiction

Factors that contribute to childhood trauma and illicit drug use in adulthood are:

  • Family dysfunction
  • Childhood aggression
  • Peer pressure
  • Genetics
  • Hyperactivity in childhood
  • Traumatic events or ACEs

Childhood trauma, and subsequent adulthood addiction, can develop from an insecure attachment with a primary caregiver. Parental rejection can contribute to the child forming maladaptive patterns if they exhibit a lack of compliance in the household, high-risk behavior, and starts to display early onset of disorders like Conduct Disorder, ADHD, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. These are especially pernicious as the child exhibits a lack of self-control, leading to later drug abuse.

Early treatment is key, especially with a gifted, trauma-informed childhood addiction therapist and supportive network. Even early treatment of ADHD and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has indicated a lower threat of adult drug use. Exploring that child/adult’s attachment to a caregiver and whether there was alcohol abuse with parents can significantly reduce the pressure and stress after an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience). A trauma-focused treatment with a childhood trauma therapist can help the person develop resilience and skills that allow them to cope and adapt to adverse situations. 

Child abuse is a highly significant factor in substance use in adolescence and future adulthood. Abuse and neglect in the home pose several factors that lead to high-risk drug abuse. These factors affecting the young person can be:

  • Anger as a pervasive state
  • Stress
  • Resentment of parents
  • Family drug use
  • Low parental monitoring
  • Socioeconomic disadvantage
  • Lack of knowledge of risks
  • Certain behavioral triggers

Early detection has found that addictions to alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and marijuana are most prevalent.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood Brain Development

How a child’s brain develops is linked with childhood experiences and early environmental conditions, biology, and encounters of a traumatic type that can all be factors for predicting a child’s susceptibility to developing an addiction.

In the occurrence of an ACE, whether from abuse, neglect, or unexpected events, trauma shapes a child’s brain. Neural pathways develop to either benefit or work against the brain’s ability to cope or be resilient. It is possible that in the occurrence and repeated exposure to traumatic events, the child, and then the adult, will run to self-medicating and substance use to cope with the pain and overwhelm.

Experiences can affect brain development, even altering the normal chemical balance. In extreme conditions that adversely affect abnormal brain development, research has shown that addiction directly correlates.

Because of prolonged exposure to maltreatment in the earlier years, high degrees of stress can be felt and lead to pressures that, over the long run, can lead to substance use as a way to relieve it. The temporary and short-lived escape drug use also promotes more mounting stress, as added pressures accumulate because of the increasing consequences of drug abuse that continue to alter the brain.

Kaiser Permanente conducted a study, which showed that an encounter with up to 4 traumatic events as a child can increase the likelihood that the child can become an alcoholic. The study also shows that traumatic events led to obesity in 60% of that population, and made them even more susceptible to drug use.

The Importance of Treatment

Addiction develops and morphs into other forms of compulsive behavior, like food addiction, sexual promiscuity, and video game addiction. When trauma is buried, numbed, or forgotten over the years, we can find the attempt to manage the often unrelenting pressures of stress to engage adults in drug and alcohol use, and without trauma-informed treatment, the inherited generational curse has a chance to continue. 

The trauma has to be addressed in treating addiction, as well as the family dynamic. Childhood trauma therapists who specialize in trauma-focused care, need to be addressing the illicit drug dependence first, then address the co-occurring underlying issues that originated in those earlier years.

If you, or someone you love, are struggling with addiction, call 408-547-4089 and talk to a care coordinator at Silicon Valley Recovery to discuss substance abuse treatment program options in the San Francisco Bay Area.