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Childhood Trauma and Addiction


The scars from childhood trauma can last a lifetime, and unfortunately, often lead to addiction issues. When someone is subject to trauma as a child, they often have unresolved emotional scars that they hide from themselves and the world.  In order to cope with these difficult emotions, people sometimes turn to drugs or alcohol, which can turn into addiction fairly quickly. If the emotional scars continue to go untreated it can be almost impossible to find addiction recovery and the scars can be passed down to the next generation.  To understand the consequences of childhood trauma a look at the science behind brain development is needed.

Brain Development and Trauma

As the brain develops, certain connections either become stronger or weaker, depending on the environment of the child.  For example, the brain’s connections when learning to speak and walk become stronger as the child grows.  If the child is neglected, however, the pathways may not grow as quickly as others and delays in these basic developmental milestones can happen.

This basic principle applies also to the development of the stress response in the child’s brain.  When a child is under repeated stress due to an unstable home environment, the connections in the brain that build their stress response system become stronger.  While the stress response becomes stronger, other areas of the brain may not develop at the same rate, which could help explain the connection between addiction and childhood trauma.

To understand what this means, let’s look at an example.  A child who is raised by an abusive parent might learn to use different distractions to disassociate with the violence that is going on around them.  These distractions could be anything from video games to prescription pills, but the message to the brain is that disassociating is how we deal with stress.  Once the child starts to build this connection, it becomes incredibly difficult to break.  This connection can easily lead to addiction as the child continues to experience stress and needs stronger substances to help distract themselves.

Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) and what they mean

The Adverse Childhood Experience survey was developed for a study done between 1995 and 1997 in which participants were asked about the different traumatic events they might have experienced in childhood.  The experiences included such things as: sexual abuse, physical violence, neglect or loss of a parent.  Each participant was given the same questions and given a score out of ten; one point for each experience the participant had.  The study then correlated the answers with their adult experiences and came up with certain connections between childhood trauma and the long-term effects.

According to the study, someone who has as low a score as two to four would have a high likelihood of using drugs or alcohol at an early age.  Those with a score of 5 or more were ten times more likely to experience addiction issues.

The interesting thing about the ACE test is that it takes into account even things such as bullying, racism, being an immigrant, or moving aChildhood Trauma lot.  These experiences are very common to a lot of people, which means a lot more people may be affected by adverse childhood experiences than we think.

What Does This All Mean

It is very important to note that not all people who suffer from childhood trauma will be addicts.  Though the study suggests a high correlation between the two, it does not suggest that one automatically leads to the other.

That being said, it might be good to start thinking of addiction as a symptom of childhood trauma and that it is a normal response.

“Ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking (what traditionalists call addiction) is a normal response to the adversity experienced in childhood, just like bleeding is a normal response to being stabbed.” – Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine.

If we as a society were to see addiction as a normal response to adverse experiences, perhaps some of the stigma placed on addicts would be erased as almost all of us have at least one ACE.  Understanding the connection between childhood trauma and addiction might also help how we treat addiction, as more could be done to ensure unresolved issues that stem from childhood would be addressed.

Concluding Thoughts

Seeing the connection between childhood trauma and addiction is not difficult.  When we are faced with adverse experiences as children, it can affect how we cope with the world around us.  Many people take on harmful coping mechanisms and the result is addiction. To help combat this issue, there needs to be more work in providing the proper tools for healing from a troubling childhood.  If the issues that stem from childhood trauma are addressed early on in a young person’s life, then the likelihood of them falling into addiction drops.  But not all those who suffer from childhood trauma get the help they need when they need it.  This is when the recovery community can help.  By addressing issues of the past with therapy, an addict has a better chance of long-term recovery and can break the cycle of addiction.


Image by Hans Kretzmann from Pixabay

Image by ibrahim abed from Pixabay