Updated on 07/03/23

Content reviewed by Nicholas G. Glines

Childhood is the most formative stage for development and learning. These early years create the foundation for how individuals approach and respond to experiences throughout their lives. A strong nourishing foundation helps young children develop the skills needed to transform into well-functioning adults.

When a child is exposed to positive factors during childhood, such as having a nurturing bond with a caregiver and a safe place to call home, their development is promoted positively. Similarly, when a child is exposed to harmful factors during childhood, such as abuse or neglect, their growth is promoted negatively.

There is no question that childhood trauma leaves a long-lasting impact on individuals as they age. When this trauma is left untreated or not worked through, it can increase an individual’s risk of developing mental health disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs). It is essential to recognize the many different ways that childhood trauma can contribute to substance use and addiction development and understand the treatment options available for those struggling.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma refers to any seemingly threatening, scary or dangerous event before age 18. This type of trauma can occur when an individual experiences or witnesses a situation that they consider emotionally painful or distressful.

It is essential to understand that any type of trauma is subjective, meaning that an experience may be identified as traumatic based on how an individual perceives the experience. This factor is important because everyone experiences and responds to situations differently.

Examples of Childhood Trauma

Often, childhood trauma becomes buried in an individual’s subconscious mind. Although repressed, this type of trauma will likely surface as mental health problems in the future. Many people grow up wanting to avoid their childhood trauma altogether, perhaps because they do not want to revisit it or because their traumatic experiences were deemed normal.

There are many different types of childhood trauma. Sometimes, trauma can result from a one-time event, while other times, trauma can result from repeated incidents. Some examples may include:

  • Abuse, such as physical, verbal, sexual and emotional
  • Emotional neglect
  • Watching a parent or sibling struggle with a mental health condition
  • Watching a parent or sibling struggle with a substance use disorder
  • Watching your parents’ divorce
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Being bullied
  • Grieving the loss of a loved one
  • Being diagnosed with a serious illness
  • Financial or housing instability

How Childhood Trauma Affects Adulthood

Positive experiences shape a child’s understanding of safety, security and happiness during childhood. Oppositely, hostile or fearful experiences shape a child’s sense of defense and insecurity, resulting in anger and increased isolation later in life. A developing brain is the most vulnerable to these situations because a child has no foundation for recognizing and understanding what is and is not appropriate to experience.

When a child endures trauma, they learn how to adapt to the situation to make them feel safe. They will likely experience an increase in stress, leading to increased impulsivity and inappropriate behavior. They may also experience a lack of self-worth and begin to view the world as a generally unsafe place as trauma inevitably changes the brain.

Self-Medicating With Substances

One of the most common reasons people turn to alcohol and drugs is to look for a temporary escape from their stress. Self-medicating is when an individual uses substances to cope with mental or emotional distress.

When childhood trauma is left unresolved, an individual can feel as if their life is a repeating pattern of adverse events. This feeling is especially true if an individual’s trauma was created through their parents or guardians, leaving the child without any healthy attachment. Childhood traumas can “teach” individuals that seemingly safe and comfortable places and situations could be incredibly hostile, causing them to be constantly on edge. Once an individual experiences substance use as an outlet for these emotions, it is only a matter of time before they may turn to substances repeatedly as means of comfort.

The Cycle of Addiction

Substance use is not always the end result of childhood trauma. In many cases, people may get stuck in the vicious cycle of trauma and addiction.

Substance use can often cause traumatic situations to occur. With the formation of a SUD, an individual may find themselves perpetuating trauma and substance use in their own life.

On the other hand, when individuals receive treatment for their substance use problem, their primary coping behavior is taken away. This experience can cause an individual to experience even more psychological pain where relapse is incredibly likely.

Effective treatment for SUDs like addiction must work to treat the substance use problem and associated trauma simultaneously. Most addiction treatment centers offer trauma-informed care for clients so that they can work to treat any underlying issues. This strategy prevents relapse and increases an individual’s quality of recovery.

New Hope Ranch is a male-only addiction treatment center that offers trauma-informed care for patients. We also have specialized programs to help veterans and first responders work through past trauma and substance use. If you or your loved one is struggling with the lingering effects of childhood trauma, give us a call today at (737) 600-8565 to learn about our treatment programs.