The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Table of Contents

For years, researchers, scientists, and families affected by substance abuse have wondered, “What causes addiction?” Why do some people become addicted to substances, while others do not? Genetics can play a role, as can experimentation with drugs and alcohol at an early age. But research also shows a strong connection between addiction and childhood trauma.

It seems that many people turn to substances to help them cope with adverse childhood experiences. Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee, goes so far as to describe addiction as “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking.” In other words, substances seem to provide some protection or relief from stress that is beyond a person’s control.

Addiction is complex, and can occur for many reasons. But if we want to give the best support possible to those struggling with substance abuse, we clearly need to address the role of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

What is an ACE?

connection between addiction and childhood trauma boy holding leaf
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experience. This can refer to abuse, neglect, or any other form of trauma that happens to children under the age of 18.

The 10 most commonly referenced ACEs are:

  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Having a parent who struggles with addiction
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Having a family member in jail
  • Having a family member with a mental illness
  • Experiencing parental divorce, death, or abandonment

These 10 experiences are used to calculate an “ACE score.” Each experience counts as one “point.” If you’ve had two of these experiences, for example, your ACE score would be two.

Of course, there are many other types of childhood adversity that have an impact. These include bullying, racism, witnessing the abuse of a sibling, experiencing homelessness, witnessing violence outside the home, being involved with the foster care or juvenile justice system, surviving a serious accident, and so on. Although not included in the ACE score, all of these types of stress and trauma have a lasting effect, and should be taken into account.

help with alcohol addiction ria health
Need Help or Have Questions?

Schedule a private call with a Ria Health team member and we can help you get started.

How Widespread is the Problem?

In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with Kaiser Permanente conducted a wide-ranging study on adverse childhood experiences, involving over 17,000 individuals. They found that roughly 64 percent of participants had experienced at least one ACE, and 22 percent had experienced three or more. With the exception of physical abuse and neglect, women were more likely to have experienced each ACE than men were.

This means that childhood adversity is far more common than many of us would hope, and that the consequences are likely to be widespread.

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect People Later in Life?

According to the CDC, adverse childhood experiences are linked to a number of serious long-term issues, including:

  • Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and PTSD
  • Suicide
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Unsafe sex and sexually transmitted infections
  • Health issues such as cancer, diabetes, traumatic brain injury, and pregnancy complications
  • Limited education, income, and career opportunities

Every person is different, so experiencing childhood trauma does not guarantee that you will have any of these problems. Statistically, however, the higher your ACE score is, the higher your risk will be.

One big reason for this is that chronic or acute stress affects children differently than it affects adults. Evidence suggests that the more frequently a child experiences certain kinds of toxic stress, the more likely it is to affect their developing brain architecture—and as a consequence, their behavior. This includes an increased tendency towards unhealthy coping mechanisms, including addiction.

Childhood Trauma and Alcohol Abuse

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE studies from the 1990s included research on the link between trauma and alcohol addiction.

One study looked at eight of the ten traumatic experiences on the ACE survey, and found that each of them was connected to a higher risk of alcohol abuse. Those with multiple ACEs were actually two to four times as likely to report alcoholism or heavy drinking. They were also two to four times as likely to marry an alcoholic.

Another study from the same research project looked at the impact of parental alcohol abuse on ACEs and alcoholism. Of the ACEs included in the survey, all nine were more likely to occur in households with parents that abused alcohol. And once again, the more ACEs a person experienced, the more likely they were to struggle with alcohol themselves.

What Does This Mean for People Struggling With Addiction?

Not everyone struggles with addiction for the same reasons. For some, it may be the result of genetics. For others, it may develop over time as a consequence of stress in their adult life, or frequent alcohol or drug use in social contexts. But it is important to understand that for many, addiction is connected to coping mechanisms based in childhood adversity.

What this means is that treatment for addiction needs to include counseling, therapy, coaching, and other forms of psychological support to be effective for everybody. While a combination of factors may often be at play, trauma has a significant role in many people’s substance abuse. Long term recovery often hinges on finding new coping mechanisms, and having strong, ongoing support.

Ria Health’s online program is working to make that support easier to access for those with alcohol use disorder. With the use of telemedicine, we’re making it possible to meet with doctors and recovery coaches via your smartphone. Members get 24/7 support, as well as access to anti-craving medications and digital tools to track their progress. All plans are customized to the individual, and are designed to help you succeed long-term.

Healing from childhood trauma and developing healthier new patterns takes time. But if you’re ready to stop or limit your alcohol consumption, we are here to help. Schedule a free call to learn more today.

Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Freelance writer with contributions to numerous addiction blogs and a passion for relatable content.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
Is My Drinking Normal?

Take our short alcohol quiz to learn where you fall on the drinking spectrum and if you might benefit from quitting or cutting back on alcohol.