Skip to content

Childhood Trauma – May Trigger Substance Abuse in the Victim Later in Life

In an ideal world, every child receives nurturing, protection and education. In reality, though, life is nowhere near perfect. Instead, life is complicated, scary, and dangerous, especially for children.

  • It is not an understatement to say that millions of children and adolescents in the U.S. are subjected to trauma each year.
  • The toxic effects of childhood trauma can create a lifetime of struggle.

Unfortunately, childhood trauma is commonplace. More than two-thirds of children in the U.S. have experienced some form of trauma, often repeatedly, by teenagers.

“We know that being exposed to high doses of childhood adversity dramatically increases the risk for seven of the ten leading causes of death in the United States,” states Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. She is a pediatrician and author of “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” told the New York Times.


  • Lifelong mental health issues
  • Battles with addiction
  • Greater likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system
  • Being at a higher risk for heart disease and COPD

Understanding these issues means recognizing the range of traumatic events and trauma types that can impact young people. For example, an incident that a child experiences, or even witnesses, feels deeply threatened is considered a traumatic event.

Some of the more common types of childhood trauma can include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse or assault
  • Neglect
  • Commercial sexual exploitation
  • Unwilling separation from family members
  • Domestic, school, or community violence
  • Natural disasters or acts of terrorism
  • Fleeing war or violence as a refugee
  • Unexpected or violent loss of a loved one
  • Life-threatening illness or tragic accidents

Though these are broad-stroke categories, it’s important to remember that children face many different challenges. For example, outside the home, physical bullying or cyberbullying can cause trauma. It was also growing up with a parent or sibling who has a mental illness or substance abuse.

In the words of Dr. Robert Block, former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics;

“Adverse childhood experiences are the single, greatest, unaddressed, public health threat facing our nation today.”

Every adolescent and young person will process traumatic events in their way. However, a child’s ability to identify depends on the level of care and support they receive from the adults in their lives. It’s easy to see how problematic this can be when the adults in their life cause the trauma.

Several factors make it extremely difficult to quantify precisely how many children experience trauma each year. The vast majority of childhood trauma goes unrecognized or is unreported.

Children growing up in abusive households or other highly stressful situations are likely to think about their lives every day, even though they experience repeated trauma.

A survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a small glimpse into the problem of childhood trauma and its prevalence:

  • Nearly 700,000 children in 2015, about 9.2 victims per 1,000 kids, suffered some form of child abuse or neglect.
  • Annually, the number of children admitted to the hospital to treat assault-related injuries could fill every seat in 9 stadiums.
  • About 12 percent of physically ill children and 19 percent of those who are physically injured will deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Over half of all families in the U.S. have been affected by some disaster.

During periods of trauma or toxic stress, the body has a chemical response. It creates high cortisol levels, sometimes called the stress hormone and adrenaline, that can trigger the “fight or flight” syndrome. In a normal situation, this is a healthy response to fear. However, over the long term, it is known to cause problems, especially in children.

In small children, signs of trauma can range from:

  • trouble sleeping
  • having nightmares
  • overly fearful of being physically separated from a parent
  • frequently scream and cry
  • Depression, anxiety, and feeling isolated
  • Self-harming
  • Eating disorders or risky sexual behavior
  • Learning disorders, low grades, and higher rates of suspension and expulsions from school

Teenagers coping with childhood trauma often begin to experiment with alcohol and drugs. When young victims of toxic stress grow to be adults, the consequences of untreated trauma become even more severe. In large part, society helps adults overcome traumatic events rooted in childhood.

Employers, health care institutions, and the criminal justice system lack the resources to deal with a person’s behavior, physical wellbeing, or mental health related to their childhood.

In adults, childhood trauma triggers:

  • Greater likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system
  • Higher rates of untreated mental health problems
  • Increased use of mental health services
  • Serious risk of long-term chronic illnesses

Along with all of these issues comes a likelihood that an excessive number of people who suffered childhood trauma will later struggle with substance abuse and addiction.

There is a strong link between early life trauma and addiction to drugs or alcohol. This link is especially valid for those never treated for the trauma. Instead, they experienced or, for that matter, even identify an event as traumatic.

The data is staggering related to childhood trauma among adults who eventually seek treatment for an alcohol use disorder or drug abuse.

Research has shown 62 percent of women and men receiving addiction recovery treatment report that they were victims of physical or sexual abuse as children. In addition, more than 50 percent of those in treatment for addiction meet the criteria for PTSD that developed before their substance use disorder.

Though it’s impossible to create a perfect world, one in which children are never the victims of trauma, caregivers must address trauma in children.

As complicated as the problem is, greater compassion for adults coping with past trauma will also create an opportunity for more people to come forward and get the help they deserve.

Read about teen drug abuse here.