How Should You Navigate Past Family Trauma?

The problem of youth or teen addiction often has deeper roots in the family system. Some young people have experienced traumatic events in the family, which increase their risk for mental health illnesses and substance use. These include neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, refugee experiences, and parental loss or injury. A nationally representative sample of young people aged 12 to 17 shows that 39% reported witnessing violence.

For many teens and adolescents, substance addiction can be a way to self-medicate in response to traumatic stress. It is important to learn how traumatic events in the home affect children’s long-term health. Parents need to work with professional interventionists who know how to implement trauma-informed care to help young people recover from both trauma and addiction.

How Does Family Trauma Impact Youth?

The word “trauma” refers to physical or emotional impact by violent or life-threatening events. Traumatic events can happen in the home. Examples include sexual abuse, domestic violence, fatal accidents, and other violent incidents. They impact every member of the family, including children. The effects of trauma can triple through family relationships, creating dysfunctions that can last for decades and affect many generations. Family trauma can become intergenerational trauma.

Traumatic experiences can certainly bring family members together and build collective resilience. However, in most cases, they create a high level of stress and expose the vulnerable ones to life-long risks of dysfunction. Children who are exposed to family trauma may experience difficulties in regulating their emotions because the traumatic stress has hampered their emotional and mental development.

The signs of traumatic stress are different in each child, depending on their age and personality. Emotional distress, anxiety, fear, and poor sleeping patterns are common among young children. Among teens and adolescents, common signs include depression, social isolation, self-harming behaviors, risky sexual behaviors, and substance use.

How Does Intergenerational Trauma Impact the Family System?

Intergenerational trauma may negatively affect children. Due to the lack of a nurturing home environment or a higher dose of violence and conflicts, the younger generation can become emotionally distanced and defensive. Many families cope with intergenerational trauma by two unhealthy coping mechanisms: denial and minimization. These practices may create an oppressive silent culture within the family system, which is not conducive to mental health.

The family should be a safe haven where healthy emotional bonding across generations happens. With intergenerational trauma, however, family members may struggle with how to express their emotions in a healthy way. Once children who were exposed to traumatic stress grow up to be parents, the lasting effects of past family trauma can add burden to their already stressed parenting role. Parenting under high stress is shown to be related to insensitivity, lack of responsiveness, withdrawal, irritability, negativity, and punitiveness.

How Is Family Trauma Related to Teen Addiction?

Childhood traumatic experiences may lead to a higher risk of substance use and addiction. Apart from stress, trauma can also damage one’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth. Children who have experienced trauma (abuse or violence) at home also find it harder to trust people. Teens and adolescents who have experienced family trauma and struggle with substance addiction often have difficulty entering or staying involved in treatment.

Not all substance addiction treatment programs use a trauma-informed approach. Facilities that lack integrated services are not equipped to care for teens with both traumatic stress and substance use problems. Both addiction treatment and mental health providers need to pay attention to young people’s trauma history and its relationship to their current conditions.

What Is a Trauma-Informed Intervention?

Teens and adolescents use drugs or alcohol for a variety of reasons. Some may have experienced traumatic events that play a large role in their addiction. Not all parents or caregivers are aware of the reaching effects of family trauma. Perhaps they have been the perpetrators of such trauma in the home. Most parents are not naturally capable of addressing the negative impact of family trauma on their children. Sometimes it takes external interventionists to break the cycle of trauma and addiction.

Parents and caregivers also play an important role in helping young people to unburden themselves. If they open up about past family trauma, consider it a golden opportunity for open communication. Explain to the child that he or she is not responsible for what happened, as that is often one hidden burden. Be patient with their progress – healing can take time and is not always linear.

The most effective care for teens and adolescents who struggle with family trauma and substance addiction is for parents, caregivers, and interventionists to work together by implementing a personalized trauma-informed treatment plan. Family-based, trauma-informed care should include coaching family members on the signs of shared traumatic stress and how much stress has shaped family relationships, as well as encouraging them to seek evidence-based treatment.

The problem of youth or teen addiction often has deeper roots in the family system. Some young people have experienced traumatic events in the family, which increase their risk for mental health illnesses and substance use. Parents need to know more about how family trauma works for the younger generation before intervening in their risky behaviors. In these situations, working with professional interventionists can be extremely beneficial. At South Florida Intervention, our trained interventionists have helped many teens and young adults navigate family trauma while trying to achieve sobriety. We know how to implement trauma-informed care to support families. We can also help your loved one connect with a strong and supportive recovery community, including other trusted health experts. South Florida Intervention offers a range of services, from recovery coaching and parent coaching to sober escort and case management services. We are here to help. Do not delay treatment. Call us today at (202) 390-2273 to learn more.