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Childhood Trauma and Addiction

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Treating Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Childhood trauma occurs far too often, and it affects children in various ways throughout their lives. Research shows that one in three young people reported at least one traumatic event by the age of 16, and one in seven experienced neglect or abuse in a single year. Trauma increases the risk for chronic pain, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, mental disorders, and premature death.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Not everyone reacts to trauma in the same way, but traumatic events like these put all children at risk for behavioral and substance use disorders:

• Serious injury or illness
• Neglect or physical abuse
• Violence in the home, school, or community
• Sexual abuse
• Psychological abuse
• Loss of a loved one, especially when violent or sudden
• Seeing or experiencing domestic violence
• Bullying
• Acts of terrorism or natural disasters
• Physical or sexual assault
• Fears about family members in war zones and other dangerous places

Preschool children may have separation anxiety, nightmares, poor appetite, and frequent spells of crying. Elementary school children may feel ashamed, fearful, guilty, or anxious. Sleeping or focusing their attention may be difficult. In middle and high school, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, sexual acting out, and substance use are common.

Other symptoms occur at different stages of life, especially in periods of great stress. Among them are learning problems; lack of productivity at home, school or work; risky behavior; mental health issues; and chronic physical conditions.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

Childhood experiences influence the brain’s development and play a role in emotional resilience, personality, and intellect. If interactions with caregivers, family, teachers, and the community are positive, a sound foundation for future growth develops. If the childhood years are filled with adversity, the future will be more challenging. Good parenting is important, but even good parents can have issues that make their jobs difficult.

Two parts of the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, are activated by fear and stress. The amygdala takes in new information and decides if it’s a threat. The hippocampus remembers traumatic events and connects them to warnings from the amygdala. If the brain senses danger, the prefrontal cortex releases adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that activate the “fight or flight” response. Young children can’t deal with the fear and anxiety that follows, and the brain’s ability to regulate future emotions is impaired.

Children can learn to handle stress by recognizing its triggers and sensing its physical effects on the body. Deep breathing and mindfulness, exercises that can be taught at any age, help to slow down the “fight or flight” response and calm the mind.

How Is Addiction Linked to Trauma?

Addiction is the compulsive need to use habit-forming substances regardless of the desire to stop or the damage that results. People with substance use disorders build up a tolerance to alcohol or drugs and suffer specific physical symptoms when the substance is withdrawn.

The most critical period for the onset of addiction in youth is between 12 and 17 years. When an adolescent or a family member uses alcohol or drugs, the risk for traumatic events increases, and so does the likelihood of addiction. Teens who use substances are more likely to be exposed to violence, suffer from PTSD or depression, attempt suicide, or deal with other mental disorders.

The link between trauma and addiction is clear. Childhood adversity affects the ability to cope with stress later in life. When the stress becomes too much to handle, the danger of addiction grows. Besides drugs and alcohol, compulsive behavior may include eating disorders, unsafe sex, and other risky activities. People of all ages have a tendency to self-medicate to numb unpleasant thoughts and feelings. The more support and resources they are given, the more likely they will be to get help before the behavior progresses to an addiction.

What Does the Research Say?

Between 1995 and 1997, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and how neglect, abuse, and household challenges affected well-being later in life. The original ACE study looked at 1,700 adults who completed confidential surveys about their childhood and their well-being at the time of a medical exam. ACEs were divided into three categories: neglect, abuse, and household challenges.


Studies of emotional neglect investigated the presence of closeness, support, and well-being in family relationships. Physical neglect looked at the availability of food, transportation, medical care, and clean clothing, but it also measured the emotional and physical stability of caregivers.


Emotional abuse included insults or put-downs by parents or adults in the home. Acts like hitting, pushing, or hurting fell under the label of physical abuse. Sexual abuse included acts of unwanted touching or forced sexual activity.

Household Challenges

Conflict between parents, aggressive behavior, and drinking or drug use were listed as household challenges. Challenges also included depression or other disorders in the home, divorce, legal problems, and family conflict.

The research showed that adverse childhood experiences occur in all kinds of populations. Approximately 2 in 3 participants said they had experienced one or more episodes, and 1 in 5 reported at least three. ACEs were more common in areas with economic and social challenges, and statistics confirmed a relationship between the number of ACEs and the number of negative outcomes in health and well-being.

What Are the Risk Factors for Adverse Events?

Individual, family, and community factors may increase a child’s risk of adverse events, including:

• Low income or lack of education
• Lack of communication in the family
• Social isolation or negative influence in the family or community
• Early dating or sexual activity
• Caregivers who don’t know what kids need
• Caregivers who were mistreated as kids
• Single or addicted parents
• Stressful conditions in the home
• Use of physical punishment

Communities also play a role in adversity. High rates of crime, violence, lack of education, and poverty make life difficult for families. High unemployment rates, lack of housing, and easy availability of drugs and alcohol add even more challenges. Unfortunately, neighborhoods with these problems often have few activities for youth, higher transience rates, and lower levels of social support.

How Can Communities Prevent Childhood Trauma?

Families who have the stability to offer children strong, nurturing homes, and consistent care have fewer household challenges. Children benefit when they feel good about school, have positive support from friends and family, and have a sense of belonging in a community. Good role models, educated and financially secure parents, and easy access to medical care and good schools make it easier for parents to raise a family.

Communities that support families, provide a safe place to live, and offer high-quality child care facilities have fewer challenged households and instances of trauma. When parents and children live in a caring community and feel secure enough to relax and enjoy the world they live in, they’re less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to make them feel better.

What Are the Benefits of Preventing Childhood Trauma?

Early intervention is the key to preventing the lasting effects of adverse childhood experiences, but families and communities need support. The CDC recommends enlisting the help of neighborhood and faith-based organizations that help youth build self-esteem and reach their potential.

Benefits include better school performance, healthier relationships, less risk of substance abuse, and a greater likelihood of high school graduation. Young people who feel confident and supported are less apt to have behavioral problems, commit acts of violence, or self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

How Are Addiction and Childhood Trauma Treated?

There isn’t a lot of research on treating young people with both traumatic stress issues and addiction, but studies show that it’s not enough to focus only on the substance use disorder. A dual diagnosis usually means symptoms are more complicated and severe than if there is only one disorder. Treating one and not the other increases the odds of relapse and return to unhealthy coping strategies.

The National Child Stress Network recommends a 10-step plan for treating trauma and substance use disorder:

• Routine screening to assess substance use and traumatic stress
• Options to give youth and families intense treatment options
• Early emphasis on reducing and managing both disorders
• Relapse prevention targeting substance use and trauma
• Consistent and collaborative therapeutic relationship
• Focus on stress management with practices like relaxation and positive self-talk
• Self-regulation and recognition of negative thinking
• Social skills training and referral to teen self-help groups
• Family education on trauma and substance use disorder
• Use of school-based treatments to reach at-risk youth

Young people with a history of substance use and trauma can come from any background or ethnic or religious group. It’s important for therapists and caregivers to respect individual differences and emphasize strengths in the recovery process. A variety of intervention and treatment approaches are available for effective treatment. Because the same neurotransmitter is involved in post-traumatic stress and substance use disorders, medication may help. The goal is to eliminate the desire to self-medicate during recovery. Psychotherapy is also useful.

What Is Dual Diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis is the clinical name for two disorders, such as PTSD and substance use disorder, that occur at the same time and impact each other. Treating both conditions simultaneously is more effective than treating each alone.

At Granite Recovery Centers, dual diagnosis treatment takes place in residential or outpatient rehab. The residential program provides 24/7 care for clients who struggle with complicated addictions or co-occurring disorders. Outpatient rehab takes place in a day program and allows participants to spend nights at home. It is recommended for clients who have short-term addictions and need less support.

Our medically assisted detox program gives clients a safe and comfortable way to cleanse before entering rehab. Licensed professionals offer evidence-based clinical treatment along with a 12-step program. Each client receives an individually designed program to promote optimal recovery and long-term sobriety.

Call Granite Recovery Centers or visit us online to get help now.