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Addiction and Childhood Trauma

It has long-since been known that there is a very close link between addiction and childhood trauma. Those who experience trauma during childhood or adolescence have much higher rates of substance abuse later on in life. Trauma takes place when a child’s emotional response to a certain event overwhelms available coping mechanisms. If a child is physically abused by a parent, for example, the child will not understand why they are being hit. They will not be able to rationalize the abuse in the way an adult might. An adult might think, “If someone is lashing out with physical violence it must be because they were abused themselves, or because they have some unresolved anger. That was an inappropriate response that has nothing to do with me.” Children, on the other hand, will often think, “I am bad. I did something wrong.” A child trying to cope with trauma is likely to internalize their hurt and act out in a variety of different ways as a result. These adverse behaviors may include:

  • Acting out at school by disrespecting teachers or bullying other students. 
  • Repeatedly “running away from home” for short periods of time. 
  • Talking back to/disrespecting parents. 
  • Breaking things/causing a scene for seemingly no reason. 
  • Throwing temper tantrums. 

Many of these behaviors are considered “attention-seeking” behaviors. The child may want attention that they are not getting, or they may want to be heard in ways they are not being heard. The more times that a child is exposed to trauma, the greater the impact will be on emotional well-being. Some children will suffer from one traumatic experience, such as the death of a parent or a significant accident (such as a serious car accident). Other children will undergo repeated traumatic events, such as parental abuse or neglect, repeat abandonment (as children in th foster care system might experience) or repetitive sexual abuse. However, the types of trauma that lead to mental health concerns – like substance abuse and dependency – in adulthood are generally caused by prolonged/repetitive traumatic experiences.

The Pervasiveness of Trauma

Sadly, childhood trauma is not uncommon. It is estimated that nearly 35 million American children have lived through one or more types of trauma, according to the National Survey on Children’s Health. This equates to a staggering 34,825,978 children nationwide. Slightly over 25% have suffered from one traumatic experience within their own family, and 22.6% have suffered from two or more adverse, traumatic experiences within their own family. Those who experience trauma early on in life and do not receive the necessary treatment are liable to struggle with severe issues in adulthood, ranging from mental health concerns to legal issues and interpersonal problems. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is a comprehensive study that is funded and conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. The ACE Study focuses on the prevalence of childhood trauma and the impact that this trauma will have on adolescents and adults. The in-depth study began in 1995 and was consistently conducted through 1997. It focused on a total of 17,000 test subjects, who were all studied comprehensively. One out of every five participants had reportedly suffered from three or more differing adverse experiences during their childhoods.

During the course of the study the effects of childhood trauma was examined – how did early trauma translate into adulthood? It was discovered that adults who had suffered trauma early on were more likely to suffer from substance abuse and addiction, more likely to suffer from depression, and more likely to engage in domestic violence (whether they were the abuser or the abused within the relationship). Rates of sexually transmitted diseases were also significantly higher, as were rates of additional medical problems like heart disease. How do early adverse experiences ultimately transform into substance abuse issues? There are many different answers when it comes to this specific question – some are more scientific, while some focus on emotional development. It has been proven that the developing mind if extremely influenced by experiences – a nurturing environment will often lead to healthy brain development, while a toxic and stressful environment might lead to stunted brain development or a lack of positive growth. As far as the emotional aspect goes, those that grow up in healthy and functional households are more likely to learn to adapt to adverse situations. They are also more likely to learn how to successfully cope with uncomfortable emotions.

For example, a child that grows up in a dysfunctional family might be punished for crying. They might be spanked (or worse), and told to pull it together (or worse). This will ultimately teach them to bottle up their emotions, keeping things inside and failing to express emotional distress as it arises. Those that grow up in a functional household will be encouraged to express themselves, and they will be taught healthy coping mechanisms. These two behavioral patterns can easily transfer into adulthood. Adults that are used to bottling up their emotions will have difficulty communicating or working through issues, and are likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medication. Those who are used to working through things in a healthy way will continue to do so, and ultimately pass these positive traits on to their own children.

Treating Addiction and Unresolved Trauma

When it comes to childhood trauma, it is unreasonable to assume that because an individual is older he or she should “just get over it.” Trauma must be addressed thoroughly and adequately, and when it is coupled with substance abuse it must be addressed in conjunction. In order for trauma therapy or addiction therapy to be successful, both issues must be treated simultaneously. This integrated treatment generally takes place in a dual diagnosis treatment center; however, because trauma and addiction tend to go hand in hand so regularly, most reputable rehab facilities will offer trauma-related care. At Intrepid Detox Residential, our staff is made up of licensed trauma therapists and addiction specialists, all of whom will work together to provide you with the highest quality of care possible. Numerous therapeutic modalities will be utilized, including individual, group, and family therapy sessions. Sadly, many children will experience trauma at the hands of a member of the opposite sex. Because of this, we offer gender-specific care to help facilitate openness and provide additional comfort. It is our main priority to ensure that all existing issues are being adequately addressed and treated, and that all remaining childhood trauma is completely and thoroughly resolved through intensive healing.

At Intrepid Detox Residential, we understand the strong link between trauma and substance abuse, and we work to treat all existing disorders (including unresolved trauma) in our comprehensive and integrated program of recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and unresolved trauma and is ready to stop using and begin on the road of recovery, we are available to help. Simply give us a call today, and our admissions counselors will work to ensure that you are able to begin your own personal journey of recovery as quickly as possible.

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