Childhood Trauma and Addiction: What Is the Link?
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Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, supportive, and loving environment. Unfortunately, for many children, their early years are rife with events that disrupt their sense of safety and security.
Trauma can happen as a result of any event or series of events that interrupt a person’s sense of safety or belonging, including things like the death or illness of a parent, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence in the home.
For a child, trauma can have lasting impacts into adulthood, altering their relationships with others, their ability to cope with stress, and their mental health. These lasting impacts can subsequently lead a person to use unhealthy substances to cope, including alcohol.
Although alcohol use disorder is complex and can’t be tied to one direct cause, researchers have established a link between childhood trauma and addiction.1 This article will give an overview of how childhood trauma leads to substance use disorder, and what can be done about it.
Table of Contents
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Any event that threatens a child’s safety or the safety of their caregiver(s), can have a traumatic impact. In a landmark study, researchers identified 10 types of traumatic events that have the largest impact on adult health and well-being.2 These are called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, and include the following events:
- Divorce or separation of parents
- Emotional abuse by a caregiver or other adult
- Physical abuse by a caregiver or other adult
- Sexual abuse by an adult or person 5 years older
- Emotional neglect (e.g., feeling unloved)
- Physical neglect (e.g., not having enough to eat)
- Witnessing physical abuse or violence towards a caregiver
- Living with someone who abused drugs or alcohol
- Living with someone with mental illness and/or suicidality
- Having a household member go to prison
Experiencing any of the above events before age 18 is an indicator of childhood trauma. Adverse Childhood Experiences and addiction appear to go hand in hand; people who have experienced ACEs are more likely to suffer from substance use disorder.3 What’s more, ACEs can have a compounding impact on a child, with more ACEs leading to even worse outcomes.
The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction
Adverse Childhood Experiences are more common than many of us would believe. Roughly 45% of children in the U.S. have experienced at least one of the above traumatic events, with divorce/separation and physical neglect being the most common. About 10% of children have experienced three or more ACES, placing them at even higher risk for negative outcomes.4
Unfortunately, childhood trauma and addiction often go together. In one study, researchers identified that 70% of people in a group for alcohol use disorder treatment had experienced at least one ACE, with physical neglect and sexual abuse being the most common.5 In another study, researchers found that people who experienced childhood trauma were seven times more likely to drink to excess compared to those who hadn’t experienced childhood trauma.6
Why Can Childhood Trauma Lead to Alcohol Use Disorder?
What causes the link between childhood trauma and alcohol dependence? Researchers have identified a few key mechanisms and theories.
Trauma negatively impacts our ability to connect to other people and cope with stress. When a child experiences trauma, they take in messages that they aren’t safe or that they can’t rely on the adults around them to keep them safe.
This disruption in safety and security can lead to maladaptive coping strategies later on in adolescence and adulthood, which might include using alcohol as a way to self-medicate feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Childhood trauma can quite literally rewire your brain. Our brains and bodies are incredibly adept at adjusting to the stimuli and circumstances of our environments. When a child experiences trauma, that impacts the way that their brains react to stress.7
For example, one study found that specific genetic markers were more common in adults who experienced both childhood trauma and addiction, suggesting that trauma had epigenetic impacts that made them more vulnerable to addiction in adulthood.8
Other researchers have theorized that childhood trauma disrupts the brain circuitry involved in moderating and reducing anxiety, thus leaving adults with trauma histories more susceptible to addiction as a coping strategy.9
Parental Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder has a strong genetic component, with some heritability estimates hovering around 40 – 50%.10 What’s more, growing up with an alcoholic parent can also be a cause of childhood trauma, creating a mix of both environmental and genetic factors that make one more susceptible to alcohol addiction.
Recovering From Childhood Trauma and Alcohol Use Disorder
Whether you experienced traumatic events as a child or not, recovery from alcohol addiction is possible. The trauma that you experienced was not your fault and there is support available to help you heal from childhood trauma and alcoholism.
Connecting with a therapist who specializes in addiction is a great way to begin your recovery journey. Many therapists are trained in evidence-based methodologies that can treat both the impacts of childhood trauma and alcoholism. This might include therapies like EMDR, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). CBT in particular can be helpful in treating co-occurring addiction and trauma because of its focus on working through negative thought and behavior patterns. A therapist can also help you develop alternative, healthy coping strategies so you no longer need to use alcohol to manage stress.
Support groups are a great way to find connections with people who understand what you’re going through. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and others can help you recover from addiction because they provide a network of people you can rely on for support—something that you might not have due to the lasting impacts of childhood trauma.
Telehealth & coaching
Telehealth and recovery coaching can provide an added layer of support in your recovery plan. At Ria Health, our recovery coaches work with you to identify and implement new coping strategies that don’t involve alcohol. Although recovery coaches are not therapists, they can provide a unique kind of support to aid in your recovery.
Get started with Ria Health’s online alcohol treatment program today
Dr. Chelsea Hetherington (she/her) is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant. She helps therapists, coaches, and other businesses in the mental health space connect with their audiences and attract their dream clients through educational content writing. Her writing bridges the gap between research and practice by making complex mental health and personal development topics more accessible and easy to understand. You can find more of her writing at www.mindfultype.co