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Childhood trauma and addiction are deeply intertwined, with early adverse experiences significantly increasing the risk of substance abuse later in life. Traumatic events can lead to emotional pain and distress, which individuals may try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Understanding this connection is crucial for providing effective treatment and support to those affected by both trauma and addiction.

Childhood trauma leaves deep emotional scars, disrupting a young person’s development and well-being. As these unresolved wounds fester, teens may turn to substances as a form of self-medication.

Trauma-related mental health issues can also exacerbate substance use problems and increase a teen’s susceptibility to drugs as a short-term coping mechanism for psychological pain. If ignored, this may develop into co-occurring mental disorders requiring specialized dual diagnosis treatment for teen PTSD and substance use disorders.

This article explores the hidden connection between childhood trauma and addiction.

Understanding Childhood Trauma and Addiction

All forms of trauma can have a significant impact on a person’s mental well-being, but children are uniquely affected. Because trauma can alter the brain, early traumatic experiences can have a more significant impact on a developing mind, resulting in more deep-seated emotional pain. The link between childhood trauma and substance use problems is also stronger than the link between childhood trauma and other mental health problems.

People who experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are more susceptible to substance use issues, either due to self-medication or because of the way trauma leaves the brain more vulnerable to addictive substances. A study published in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry also shows that people who experienced traumatic events in their early years were more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than those who experienced traumatic events later in adulthood.

Self-medication can quickly escalate into addiction, complicating their path to recovery. Here’s what parents need to understand about childhood trauma and addiction:

Types of Childhood Trauma

Adverse childhood experiences refer to potentially traumatic events occurring between ages 1 and 17. Many events can be traumatic, but not all traumatic events result in symptoms of teen PTSD.

Traumatic events are generally characterized by an experience of violence or near-death, including natural disasters, domestic violence, severe bullying, accidents (such as car accidents or accidents at home), war, neglect, and sexual abuse. Among children, some of the most common PTSD-inducing traumatic events include abuse and neglect.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Our understanding of trauma today posits that it affects the portions of the brain responsible for memory, reactivity/emotional control, and adrenal control. Experiencing a traumatic event can put a person in a “loop”, where they never fully recover from their fight-or-flight response and stay under chronic mental and physical stress. Trauma can also cause symptoms of remembrance or re-experience, where unwanted thoughts and flashbacks claw their way to the forefront of the brain.

In the developing brains of children, these traumatic changes can affect behavioral and cognitive developmental milestones, delaying a child’s mental progress, causing them to experience more feelings of anxiety in otherwise normal situations, and causing behavioral or physical symptoms such as bedwetting, antisocial behavior, excessive risk-taking, and unexplained pain.

Related: How Does Teenage Trauma Affect Adulthood?

The Link Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Substance use disorders arise from the addictive properties of different drugs, from alcohol and nicotine to designer drugs like MDMA and strong illicit substances such as cocaine and heroin.

Continuous use over a period increases the risk of addiction, where both the mind and body are dependent on a substance to continue functioning. Stopping can cause uncomfortable and even illness-inducing withdrawal symptoms, as well as deep emotional pain, making quitting difficult. Cravings are also normal and can last for months or years after quitting.

For people with deep-seated, undiagnosed, and untreated pain, such as childhood trauma, drugs can be an effective chemical escape and short-term coping mechanism. Unfortunately, the drawbacks of long-term addictive drug use are much more severe than the temporary relief it offers.

Risk Factors for Addiction in Trauma Survivors

Risk factors are characteristics that increase the possibility of a condition, like a substance use disorder. While they’re not the same as a cause, they can collectively be considered contributing elements. Many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress can serve as a risk factor for addiction, especially in teens.

One of the greatest risk factors for long-term drug use is early drug use – children who experience trauma are more likely to try drugs earlier in life, especially if their trauma goes unaddressed. Other risk factors for addiction in trauma survivors include:

  • Self-medication due to negative life events (violence, neglect, abuse).
  • Socioeconomic struggles (children born in poverty are more likely to experience childhood trauma).
  • Exposure to violence at home or in the community.
  • Co-occurring mental health issues, like anxiety or depression.

Identifying and Addressing Trauma in Adolescents

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress can look different in children and teens as opposed to adults. Children are more likely to re-enact their trauma during play as a form of re-experiencing and might incorporate elements of what happened in roleplaying or even while playing computer games.

Teens who have experienced traumatic events are more likely than children or adults to lash out emotionally, experience irritability or mood swings, and struggle with emotional control.

Alongside these symptoms, children and teens experiencing post-traumatic stress are likely to:

  • Experience nightmares and frequent outbursts.
  • Express feelings of shame or guilt.
  • Express fearfulness and hyperreactivity.
  • Express symptoms of poor mood and anxiety.
  • Experience eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and substance use.

Treatment Approaches for Co-occurring Trauma and Addiction

Post-traumatic stress, trauma-related mental health issues, and trauma-related substance use disorders are complex mental health conditions, primarily because of their comorbidity.

Treating co-occurring trauma and addiction in teens requires a holistic and long-term approach, combining different modalities to create an individualized treatment plan based on a teen’s experiences, circumstances, and reactions to different forms of therapy. Inpatient treatment is often a good idea for teens experiencing post-traumatic stress and addiction, giving them a safe environment to focus entirely on their mental well-being.

Treatment methods will include one-on-one and group therapy and behavioral and skills training. The focus will be on healthier coping strategies, improving sociability, and helping teens reintegrate into school and life at home after treatment.

Treating Trauma and Helping Teens Cope

Has your teen been affected by a potentially traumatic event earlier in their life? Talk to them about trauma treatment and working on healthier coping mechanisms together.

Learn more about the transformative impact of residential trauma treatment at Visions Treatment Centers, where we provide expert care tailored to your teenager’s unique needs.

Take the first step towards healing and a brighter future for your teen, and contact us today.


Childhood trauma leaves lasting scars that can lead to addiction as a coping mechanism for psychological pain.

This connection between trauma and substance abuse is often more pronounced in cases of childhood trauma, where unresolved emotional wounds disrupt development and keep teens from learning how to effectively deal with life stressors while leaving them more vulnerable to the addictive properties of drugs.

Recognizing the signs of childhood trauma and its link to addiction is crucial in providing support and effective intervention, including inpatient treatment and long-term recovery.


Zlotnick C, Johnson J, Kohn R, Vicente B, Rioseco P, Saldivia S. Childhood trauma, trauma in adulthood, and psychiatric diagnoses: results from a community sample. Compr Psychiatry. 2008 Mar-Apr;49(2):163-9. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2007.08.007. Epub 2007 Oct 24. PMID: 18243889; PMCID: PMC2648973.