HomeAbuseHow Childhood Trauma Contributes to Adult Substance Abuse

How Childhood Trauma Contributes to Adult Substance Abuse

Written By: Harris House

Category: Abuse, Addiction, Trauma

Sixty percent of American children are exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities, according to statistics shared by the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. Unfortunately, the impact of childhood trauma can continue to play out well into adulthood—often in the form of substance abuse issues. Here’s a closer look at the phenomenon, along with why targeted treatment is critical to addressing the underlying causes of addiction in order to support recovery.

Childhood trauma

Children deserve to feel safe and treasured, but when trauma occurs, the consequences can be dire.

Researchers Weigh In

The link between childhood abuse and adult mental health issues is well known; however, scientists have recently determined that trauma exposure in childhood also correlates with adult substance abuse.


Specifically, “substance use often emerges as a maladaptive strategy used to manage the negative results of trauma exposure, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression,” according to research published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. In fact, data indicates that people who are abused and neglected as children are roughly 1.5 times more likely to report illicit drug use during the prior year compared to their non-abused peers.

In sum, a staggering 96.5 percent of people with substance use disorders experienced at least one trauma in their lives, oftentimes during childhood.

Childhood Trauma and Adult Substance Abuse: Making Sense of the Connection

All of this begs the question: Why are people who experience trauma in their youth more prone to addiction in the years ahead? Researchers say emotional dysregulation is a significant factor in increased risk for the development of problems with substance use and abuse.

Emotion regulation is the set of processes through which people modulate their feelings and behaviors to emotion-eliciting events. Lack of emotion regulation, therefore, can result in the inability of an individual to manage negative emotional states. This can lead to impaired function in many environments across many relationships.

Continues the article, “Emotion regulation strategies in childhood are often developed through interactions with parents and other supportive adults. When the home environment is harmful or unsupportive (including childhood abuse), children are less likely to be exposed to appropriate emotional labeling, expression, and regulation behaviors often modeled by primary caregivers.”

The good news is that early interventions after childhood exposure to trauma can help reduce the risk of substance abuse; however, if these interventions don’t occur, emotional dysregulation can continue to impact childhood trauma victims’ susceptibility to addiction.

According to Psychology Today, child trauma survivors turn to substances for a variety of reasons, including blocking out bad memories, dealing with isolation and loneliness, boosting self-worth and self-esteem, and coping with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health problems.

The Treatment Imperative

“Children who have been traumatized by sexual abuse often report feelings such as shame, terror, depression, and guilt. They often blame themselves for the abuse. Although drugs and alcohol can give survivors a moment of reprieve, there are dangerous risks and high costs to that emotional escape,” continues Psychology Today.

Rehab program

Choosing the right rehab program can make all the difference when overcoming childhood trauma.

To that end, the profound value of rehab programs designed to address the underlying emotional and psychological issues that remain long after the trauma has ended cannot be overstated. Concludes Psychology Today, “Fortunately, dark moments don’t have to last, and drugs don’t have to cover unhealed wounds. Survivors can learn healthy coping skills and become a beacon of encouragement and hope to other youth who travel a similar path toward healing.”

We’re Here to Help

Enter leading St. Louis drug rehab facility Harris House, which offers targeted substance abuse programs aimed at treating the “whole” person. It is only in acknowledging the roots of addiction that addicts can overcome their pasts in order to embrace their substance-free futures. Call us today to learn about admissions.

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