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Medically Reviewed

How Does Childhood Trauma Lead to Addiction?

- 4 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Trauma is described as an emotional shock that follows a deeply disturbing or distressing event. Oftentimes, when individuals experience trauma they deal with symptoms of physical shock and even long-term neurosis. For example, many individuals with a history of trauma develop conditions such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When a child experiences trauma, the lasting effects the child experiences might be more severe than the effects an adult would suffer from. This is because children’s brains are in the earliest stages of development, allowing traumatic experiences to leave a larger impact.

Mental health conditions caused by trauma will become amplified if the individual experienced the trauma as a child. This is because typically children are less capable of understanding or working through the traumatic experiences they have dealt with. Additionally, many children have no ability to leave a traumatic situation, such as an abusive household. Issues like these can become debilitating, leading to lifelong issues such as depression, PTSD, addiction, and even suicide.

Let’s take a look at how childhood trauma leads to addiction and how these co-occurring issues are treated.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma is defined as a child experiencing an event that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.[1] Trauma can be personal or environmental. Either type of trauma will cause a child to experience lasting mental and emotional effects if left untreated. These emotional effects that develop as a result of childhood trauma may lead to substance abuse and addiction.

Examples of childhood trauma include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Loss of a parent
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Untreated mental illness in the home
  • Criminal behavior in the environment

Additionally, if a child experiences a natural disaster of significant effects, they may be suffering from trauma. For example, experiencing wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes can cause childhood trauma.

Unfortunately, individuals who experience childhood trauma are known to experience lasting effects. These effects may include:

  • Disrupted neurodevelopment
  • Social, emotional, and cognitive impairment
  • Adoption of health-risk behaviors
  • Disease, disability, and social issues
  • Early death
  • Substance abuse and addiction

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect the Brain?

Children are much more susceptible to the effects of trauma, but why? Children’s brains are growing and developing at a quicker pace than the brains of adults. As a result, the brain of a child is more sensitive to the environment around them. Additionally, children’s brains are still forming new neural structures at a constant rate. This is referred to as neuroplasticity, which describes the ability of neurons (the building blocks of the brain) to change and adapt.[2]

The new experiences that young people have are a huge aspect of what forms them as a person. Infants and toddlers are learning how to walk and interact with their family members and parents during this stage. As they experience and observe life around them, these circumstances begin to affect how their brain changes and grows.

Because of this, when a child experiences something traumatic, their brain will develop and grow maladaptively. For example, if a child witnesses the abuse of their mother, their brain will begin to internalize the behavior they see. This could cause long-term effects of anxiety, low self-worth, and even the normalization of violence.[2]

The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

According to studies, children who have a history of trauma were 4 to 12 times more likely to experience drug dependency, alcoholism, mental health conditions, and even suicide attempts.[3] While there is no singular reason why childhood trauma leads to addiction, these two conditions have a complex relationship.

Commonly, individuals who have experienced childhood trauma begin using drugs or alcohol as an attempt to self-medicate. Oftentimes, these individuals do not have the access to mental health treatment such as therapy and medications. This can cause issues like PTSD to worsen over time, leading the individual to seek alternative forms of relief. Unfortunately, childhood trauma survivors often deal with low self-worth, causing them to feel as if they do not deserve help. This only furthers their urges to self-medicate with substances.

Even further, there are many individuals who do not realize that childhood trauma is what led them to develop an addiction. It is common for childhood trauma survivors to repress their memories of abuse, further perpetuating their symptoms of depression or anxiety. This often leads individuals to use drugs and alcohol as an escape from their suffering. Unfortunately, the consequences of addiction only further exacerbate the very symptoms they were attempting to soothe.

Treating Addiction and Childhood Trauma

Trauma-informed care is necessary for people struggling with addiction and PTSD. Both trauma and substance abuse must be addressed simultaneously to prevent a relapse in symptoms. While treating this co-occurrence can be difficult, recovery is possible and likely with the proper resources.

When attending treatment for addiction stemming from childhood trauma, patients should remember the following:

  • They are not alone. Many survivors feel guilt and shame and are afraid to talk about their trauma. Individuals who do not talk about their trauma will not be able to fully recover. However, other patients in treatment have also experienced trauma, and individuals are in a safe space.
  • Childhood trauma is not the victim’s fault. Utilizing professional help and talking to others who have gone through similar events will help patients succeed.
  • Everyone deserves a life free from pain and substance dependency. Treatment will help to ease the damage of childhood trauma and alleviate any feelings of pain with the help of experienced professionals.
  • Rehab is a safe space. Treatment is a place of no judgment, understanding, and support. Professionals have evidence-based methods of treatment to help their patients let go of their feelings of fear, guilt, or shame.

If you or a loved one suffer from addiction that stems from childhood trauma, contact Carolina Recovery Center today. Our trauma & PTSD program can help.