Addressing Your Child's Trauma and Its Connection with Substance Use

Did you know that a young person's substance use may be related to some trauma they experienced earlier in life? Around two-thirds of adults with a substance use disorder (SUD) have experienced some form of childhood trauma. This high level of correlation is also shown in the rising rate of addiction among teens and young adults who struggle with ongoing trauma in the family.

Traumatic events may have already impacted a child's mental health and coping abilities before substance use became a problem. Parents need a trauma-informed understanding when it comes to supporting their children's recovery from addiction.

What Is Trauma?

Childhood trauma refers to life's circumstances that involve violence or dangerously unhealthy factors in the social environment where children grow up. They include neglect, physical abuse, psychological manipulation, sexual abuse, natural disasters, community violence, life-threatening accidents, grief, refugee experiences, or parental injury.

Children who experience these traumatic events may not display external wounds, but their internal ability to cope and manage emotions has been overwhelmed. They may also easily succumb to fear and stress in the social environment. Without early intervention by mental health professionals, these internal wounds may accompany them for their whole life, sometimes leading to mental health issues in their adult phase of life.

Although the signs of traumatic stress can vary, children almost always display emotions or behavioral patterns worth noticing. For example, even young children who experienced traumatic events, such as domestic violence, may show signs of stress, including nightmares, eating disorders, emotional outbursts, or heightened separation anxiety. As children grow to school age, they may display strong emotions of shame, fear, anxiety, and depression, in addition to self-harming tendencies.

How Are Childhood Trauma and Substance Use Related?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) study on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), traumatic events children experience before they turn 18 may lead to a higher risk of substance-related disorders. Because addiction involves biological, psychological, and mental health aspects, children impacted by trauma are vulnerable to the influences of drugs and alcohol, especially when these substances are made available to them in the proximate environment.

On a physiological level, trauma may significantly reshape the growth of the brain and its neurological pathways. Sometimes, traumatic events may impact the brain structures to the extent of causing severe cognitive and behavioral impairments. Other times, high-stress levels caused by trauma may impede normal brain development, which tends to worsen during adolescence.

It is not hard to understand how traumatic events can also serve as triggers for substance use. The former creates toxic stress and negative understandings of the self. These problems may become aggravated when children reach adolescence. During this stage of life, they have a stronger propensity to self-medicate with substances to numb negative feelings or escape hardships in life. Instead of coping with the pain, they find it easier to use substances, especially when faced with peer pressure to use them.

Childhood trauma may also create a person's tendency toward relational toxicity. Many teens and young adults gravitate to friends with addictive habits because they cannot form healthy boundaries in these friendships. In this case, trauma bonding is the root cause, not substance use itself.

How to Help a Child Struggling with Trauma

Young people who have survived childhood trauma may find it difficult to form healthy relationships throughout life. This is why it is essential to intervene early on when you detect signs of emotional stress in a child who might have been through traumatic events. Mental health education related to children and parenting education is critical.

Health professionals have developed different techniques to help children who struggle with past trauma. These include holistic family counseling, trauma-focused cognitive-behavior therapy, positive coping strategies, mindfulness, and grounding techniques. Again, early identification and intervention may change the emotional trajectory of a child.

Today, more and more educators are advocating for a multi-tiered approach to help children who experience traumatic events in life. School teachers, community leaders, and families can partner together to tackle this complex issue. More education and addressing the stigma of mental health issues can remove many barriers to treatment. Ultimately, it takes a village to support families with young people who struggle with the co-occurring conditions of trauma and addiction.

Sometimes, professionals and interventionists need to address the intergenerational impact of trauma within the family system. Given the complexity of issues and lack of awareness among parents themselves, it is important to rely on the expertise of interventionists who can help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma transmission. 

Young people’s substance use and addiction might be related to their traumatic experiences in the past. As a parent, you should be more informed about how childhood trauma triggers addiction. At South Florida Intervention, our professionally trained interventionists can coach you to understand this complex problem. We work with both parents and young people to address the root causes of addiction, which sometimes has to do with unhealthy family dynamics. We know how to create a safe space for young people to freely express their feelings, a critical step toward transparency, self-honesty, and recovery from addiction. We have helped many families support their loved ones toward long-term sobriety. Apart from recovery coaching and parent coaching, South Florida Intervention also offers a wide range of services, including sober escort and detailed case management. We can connect you with trusted health professionals who have plenty of experience addressing childhood trauma and substance addiction. Call us at (202) 390-2273.