Childhood Trauma & Substance Use Disorder: What You Should Know

July 24, 2023

4 mins

Never Alone Recovery


There's a profound connection between childhood trauma and substance use, which we're breaking down here. Ready for valuable insights into the impact of early-life experiences on addiction?

Conversations about both childhood trauma and addiction—also called substance use disorder, or SUD—hit close to home for many people. In fact, it’s highly likely that you know someone who has suffered one, the other, or perhaps even both. 

During a child’s developmental years, trauma can have long-lasting effects that may take years of therapy to undo. For these individuals, drugs and alcohol offer a tempting alternative and provides reprieve from the emotional damage within. These coping mechanisms, unfortunately, can lead to a feedback loop with its own problems and dangers. 

Defining Childhood Trauma 

The thing to remember is that trauma and childhood trauma aren’t necessarily the same thing. Events that would be traumatic for a child may not traumatize an adult. 

As an obvious (and extreme) example, you might expect going 24 hours without food to be much more traumatic for an infant than an adult. Children have a much lower threshold for trauma than adults who have more life experience and the tools to cope. Youths are also more impressionable, burning terrible experiences into their minds for years. 

Parents, guardians, teachers, and anyone else who works with children should try to be vigilant about avoiding potential dangers without being overbearing.

Causes of Childhood Trauma 

Childhood trauma takes many shapes and intensities. Compared to adults, sources of trauma for children can include: 

  • Bullying
  • Grief and loss
  • Invasive medical procedures and major illness
  • Natural disasters, war, and other catastrophes
  • Neglect
  • Parental separation 
  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Targeted or nearby violence

Conversely, it’s entirely possible for a child to remain untraumatized after an event that would typically be very traumatizing for a child. Divorce and separation, for example, can happen for good reasons and can even benefit the child. Separation from parental abuse, a difficult living situation created by work or finance, or any of the many other myriad reasons can create a healthier household, rather than a broken one. 

Children can have impressive resilience. As caretakers, we adults are responsible for teaching them to work through these troubles so they don’t find themselves heading down a darker path. 

How to Identify Childhood Trauma

There are certain symptoms and behaviors common in children who have experienced trauma. Emotionally, a child suffering from the effects of trauma may exhibit: 

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Dissociation
  • Exhaustion
  • Numbness
  • Sadness

If you suspect a child or teenager in your life has suffered trauma based on one or more of these signals, then you should work to help them access a mental health professional. 

How Trauma Affects the Brain 

The brain isn’t finished developing until age twenty-five. This is important because a child’s brain can absolutely be chemically and even structurally altered from trauma. 

In particular, high stress levels can create structural disruptions detectable by brain scan. Children’s brains–still very much in the thick of development–can begin to exhibit unusual characteristics caused by trauma.  

Physical Changes in the Brain in Response to Trauma 

Trauma and SUD produce measurable changes in the brain’s structures. Under normal circumstances, our brains have incredible adaptability; however, whenever we’re under pressure, this neuroplasticity actually works against us. 

Stress alters the hippocampus, the limbic node region  of the brain responsible for regulating the production of hormones related to stress management. When the hippocampus is overused, the brain loses much of its ability to regulate hormone balance, which introduces numerous potential health problems

Significant changes from trauma can also be observed in the frontal lobe, which handles emotional and mental processing. People with a stunted or damaged frontal lobe may struggle with attention, language, and social behavior. 

Childhood Trauma and Adult Addiction 

Researchers have discovered a significant statistical correlation between trauma and dependence on alcohol and drugs (or other behavioral addictions such as sex and food). 

Trauma forms from heightened states of fear over an extended period. Fear protects us from danger, but extended exposure desensitizes the brain to its own emotion-causing chemicals. A desensitized brain requires a stronger surge of dopamine to activate the pleasure circuit or calm down from severe stress. 

At a certain point, the brain starts to crave more dopamine than it can produce on its own, which can lead to alcohol, drugs, and a vicious cycle.

Half of adolescents who report abuse or neglect will develop SUD before their 18th birthday, according to data. If nothing else, hopefully this shows the importance of understanding the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction. 


Whether it emerges independently or as a form of self-medication, substance use disorder often starts as imitation of parental behavior. When a parent suffers from SUD, the likelihood of the child developing an addiction in adulthood is exponentially higher from the potent combination of trauma, genetics, and behavior mirroring. 


Estimates say that two-thirds of addicts have had some kind of traumatic childhood experience. That said, not everyone suffering from SUD experienced a traumatic childhood experience. And doctors who worked with children must also remember that a semblance of normalcy can help a child recover. 

Treating Trauma & Addiction

Effective addiction treatment for a patient with childhood trauma should treat the two as co-occurring psychological illnesses. 

Caretakers should help their patients find ways to alleviate the load on their overstimulated emotional processing centers with healthier coping mechanisms. While critical for any SUD patient, patients with childhood trauma may need extra assistance in this area as they work to re-sensitize long-damaged neural pathways. 

In addition to psychotherapy, meditation and relaxation techniques can help patients stabilize their mood in their everyday life outside therapy. Healthier ways to stimulate the brain and pleasure processing centers can also help. New ways to cope combined with long-overdue treatment for childhood issues attack the problem at both ends—symptom and cause. 

Patients who struggle to connect with a therapist can sometimes find common ground in group therapy and peer support groups. Support from someone who experienced the same thing you did often means more as they know what you’re going through. 

Ready for a New Chapter? Contact Never Alone Recovery Today

If you or a loved one is suffering and needs support in their substance abuse recovery, Never Alone can help. Call our toll-free number for more information about how to take the first steps on your journey to lasting sobriety.

Childhood trauma or not, your journey to recovery matters. Call us today for a risk-free, no-commitment consultation.

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