-October 13, 2019

What is the link between TRAUMA and ADDICTION in teens?

According to numerous studies, there is a definitive link between childhood trauma and addiction, PTSD and mental health. The amount of trauma experienced during the stress-sensitive period of childhood, may especially be linked to psychiatric outcomes.

In a ‘National Survey of Adolescents’ in the US, teens who had experienced physical or sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to report past or current issues with substances than those without a history of trauma. In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients had a history of trauma exposure.

When childhood trauma goes untreated, it can often severely impact ones’ quality of life as an adult.


It is defined as an adverse and often malignant emotional response to a singular or repetitive event that caused severe physical or psychological harm. It is often characterized by a person’s inability to move past and process an experience or experiences, without repeatedly reliving it. By not processing this trauma, a person tends to relive it over and over again.

TIME MAGAZINE indicates that 55-60% of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) victims, develop some form of chemical dependency. This assertion is backed up by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Childhood and adolescent trauma is often caused by any one or more of the following:

  • Extreme emotional and verbal abuse
  • Physical assault
  • Violence
  • Bullying and repeated harassment of any kind
  • Parental neglect

The key is to identify trauma-related substance abuse triggers from an early age. This is fundamental in helping those in recovery live a rich life substance free.

It can mean the difference between a healthy and productive life or significant psychological and emotional impairment and substance issues that can continue throughout life.

  • Irritable and agitated moods for prolonged periods
  • Avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma
  • An often excessive and inappropriate display of emotions
  • Erratic changes in mood and behavior
  • Pronounced fear
  • Lack of confidence or overly shy
  • Constantly reliving the event/s

Ample studies have proven that trauma in childhood compromises neural function and structure. This makes an individual susceptible to later cognitive deficits and psychiatric illnesses such as: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, PTSD and substance abuse.

The correlation between childhood trauma and drug and alcohol addiction is clear. The biological stress response often becomes dysregulated which leads teens to self-medicate to numb emotions and block out the trauma. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that more than a third of adolescents who have experienced neglect or abuse, will have a substance abuse disorder before they reach their 18th birthday.

Children usually crave stability, acceptance and community at home. Living in a toxic and unstable home environment often leads them to look for ‘safety’ elsewhere. Because their perception is skewed, this environment that is perceived as safe, is usually amongst equally or even more toxic influences. They usually turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of gaining a sense of acceptance and solidarity.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that two-thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children. Children growing up in dysfunctional family homes that experience mental, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, particularly in homes with addicted parents or parents that were not present – are especially susceptible to PTSD and trauma, which in turn can lead to addiction.  

In an interview, world-renowned expert on childhood trauma, Dr Gabor Mate, says trauma affects brain development and relationships . He goes on to say that adverse childhood experiences can distort development in multiple ways.

According to Dr Mate, trauma affects brain development as it impacts the brain circuits that regulate emotions, stress, body modulation, social relationships, insight, self-regulation and impulse control. The development of these circuits is physiologically distorted in their development under conditions of trauma. 

When children feel unsafe they develop a distorted sense of the world as family they should be able to trust have let them down. They often then look for a sense of stability and trust in unsuitable people because of distorted perceptions, having grown up in an addicted, abusive or neglectful home environment. 

His approach strongly encourages us to remove the stigma and acknowledge the suffering and trauma teens have experienced that has led to their addiction, rather than shaming and blaming the addict, which is a societal norm. He believes this is the only way to support someone on their healing path to sobriety.

An intervention during the adolescent years is therefore such a critical part of the clinical trauma-treatment process.

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