What’s the Connection Between Child Abuse and Addiction?

effects on abused children

Addiction is a chronic disease that has the potential to affect anyone, from any background or economic status. Many people like to think it could never happen in “their” family or that it’s confined only to a particular class of people. This is a myth.

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No one can say definitively they are immune from the possibility of becoming caught up in addiction’s clutches at some point in time. Addiction is smarter than we are, much sneakier than we are, and it takes no prisoners. We would be wise never to underestimate its power to pull people into its realm.

Child abuse is another topic that is difficult to discuss. It also permeates through all levels of society. We don’t want to think about any child being mistreated, and we hope we would do the right thing if a situation came to our attention.

The fact is, there are adults among us who were not fortunate enough to have grown up in a loving home and who live with the long lasting effects of child abuse related trauma every day. Does their personal history put them at higher risk for drug or alcohol addiction?

Factors Leading to Drug Addiction

There are certain risk factors that make it more likely that a person may develop a substance abuse problem. The more risk factors that apply to you or a loved one, the higher your potential level of risk. These factors include:

  • Family History of Drug or Alcohol Abuse: There is a genetic factor at work when we are looking at risk factors for addiction. If there are one or more close relatives in a family with an addiction issue, then the likelihood increases that addiction may occur in other people in the family.
  • Lack of Close Family Ties: People who report that they do not have a supportive family relationship are at higher risk for having drug or alcohol addiction problems at some point, when compared to those who have strong family relationships.
  • Age When Experimenting with Substances First Started: Young people who reported experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a very young age have a higher risk of becoming addicted than those who started using substances later on.
  • Feeling Lonely: A person who is lonely may turn to substances to cope with this negative emotion, opening the door to an addiction.
  • Peer Pressure: Trying to fit in with a group and feel accepted by its members can encourage people to experiment with drugs and alcohol, which can eventually lead to addiction. Peer pressure can be a significant factor for young people.
  • High Stress Levels: Someone experiencing high stress levels is more likely to start using substances in an attempt to cope with the situation. He or she may turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to “zone out” for a time. Continued use of substances regularly and/or in higher doses may lead to addiction.

A “Psychological Soup” of Risk Factors

child abuse and later life addiction

The type and amount of each person’s particular ingredient list varies, but all of the risk factors mix together to form a unique profile for each person. It’s important to understand that these risk factors indicate a potential for addiction. Not everyone who has some (or even all) of these factors in his or her background will end up developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Effects on Abused Children

We are all influenced by the environment we grow up in, whether positive or negative. When children are raised in an abusive environment from a young age, research has revealed the damage they carry with them as they grow up extends much further than skin deep.

Study: Childhood Abuse and Alcohol Addiction

Researchers looked at five types of childhood trauma — sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect — to determine whether each was a factor in alcohol-dependent adults who were in a treatment program. Participants in the study were asked to fill out the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. A total of 280 in an alcohol addiction treatment program participated, as well as 137 people in a control group.

The results of the survey were analyzed, and it was determined that childhood trauma was “significantly more prevalent and more severe” in the clients who were in treatment for alcohol abuse. Of the five types of abuse looked at, emotional abuse was determined to have the biggest impact on the severity of alcohol dependence later in life, with physical abuse being the second most influential form of childhood abuse.

Study: Depression and Addiction

Using brain scans, researchers at Harvard University have discovered people who were either neglected or abused in early childhood have changes in the hippocampus of their brains. This small organelle located in the brain is part of its limbic system, which is the region that regulates emotions. It is also responsible for establishing long-term memory.

As a result of these changes in the structure of the brain, the study’s participants were more likely to suffer from depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Martin Teicher led the study, which looked at close to 200 people. Approximately 25 percent of the participants had been diagnosed with major depression at some point, and seven percent had been diagnosed with PTSD.

Of those who had reported being subjected to three or more types of “child maltreatment,” over half (53 percent) had depression and 40 percent had either full or partial PTSD.

effects on abused children

Study: The Link Between Cocaine and Childhood Trauma

In this study, Dr. Lisa M. Najavits and fellow researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston reviewed data collected from the (National Institutes of Health) NIDA’s Collaborative Cocaine Treatment Study. This particular study collected both treatment and outcome data from clients at five drug abuse treatment programs in eastern cities. The researchers looked at lifetime traumatic events as well as current PTSD symptoms of 122 men and women being treated on an outpatient basis for cocaine dependency.

The results of the study showed a number of these clients had been exposed to traumatic events. On average, 5.7-20.5 percent of them had been diagnosed with PTSD. The clients who had PTSD reported their first traumatic experience happened to them at an average age of 8.4 years, which was much younger than clients in treatment who had not been diagnosed with PTSD. Those clients reported their first trauma occurred when they were further along in childhood, with the average reported age being 13.1 years.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is defined as a psychiatric disorder that occurs in some people who have either experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event. It is not limited to child abuse survivors, although adults who have experienced physical or sexual assault, either as children or adults, may develop PTSD. Military combat, natural disasters, a terrorist incident or a serious accident can also be a trigger for PTSD in a survivor or a first responder.

Many people will experience these types of events and heal over time. For some though, their stress reactions do not return to normal and may even escalate long after the initial trauma has passed and they are safe.

They continue to experience the event through flashbacks and nightmares. Sleep is an issue for them – either getting to sleep or staying asleep. They may be detached from others and start to avoid places or situations where a flashback has taken place, for fear that it may trigger a similar event.

Child Abuse and Neglect Link to Addiction

Questionnaires were distributed to 178 clients — 101 in the US and 77 in Australia — in drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs to ask about childhood abuse and neglect. The purpose of the questions was to determine whether there was a correlation between a childhood history of abuse and/or neglect and development of a substance abuse issue in adulthood. The results revealed the majority of respondents (84 percent) stated that they had a personal history that included child abuse and/or neglect.

<factors leading to drug addiction

Child Abuse and Later-Life Addiction

Some data about the role child abuse plays in later-life addiction has been gathered from a statistical review, as opposed to conducting examinations or asking people to fill out questionnaires. Dr. Najavits, along with other researchers, reviewed data from 49 previous studies conducted by the NIDA on women who had the following criteria:

  • They were drug abusers
  • The women had been diagnosed with PTSD

The PTSD patients frequently reported they re-experienced the terror of their initial trauma through either nightmares or flashbacks, one of the hallmarks of this mental health issue.

The results of the review revealed child abuse is often reported by those who suffer from PTSD with later-life addictions.

Women More Likely to Suffer from PTSD and Abuse Drugs

The results of Dr. Najavits’ review also found that female drug addicts are more likely to receive this dual diagnosis (PTSD and drug addiction) than men who become addicted to drugs. A number of studies Dr. Najavits and her colleagues looked at revealed that many women getting treatment for drug addiction have PTSD — between 30 and 60 percent — and this figure is as much as triple the rate of men seeking help for their addictions.

A Trauma History Is Prevalent for Women in Drug Rehab

Because not everyone who experiences trauma in childhood develops PTSD, it is helpful to look at statistics for people in treatment to find out how many of them experienced some sort of physical violence while growing up. Dr. Najavits’ reviewed studies indicated that the majority — 55-99 percent— of the women in drug treatment programs reported they had experienced physical or sexual trauma.

child abuse and later life addiction

In most of the cases, the trauma reported occurred before the age of 18. The trauma reported was related to “repetitive childhood physical or sexual assault.” Interestingly, when physical and sexual abuse both occurred, women were more likely to become drug abusers than if they had only experienced physical or sexual abuse while growing up.

Childhood Abuse Survivors’ Drugs of Choice

As we have seen, a number of survivors of child abuse do turn to drugs and alcohol in adulthood and/or develop mental health issues. Are there specific drugs that are more common than others for survivors of this type of trauma? Here’s a rundown:


Alcohol is a common choice for young people who wish to experiment with substances. Not only is it readily available in many homes, but it’s socially acceptable and legal. In small doses, alcohol helps users feel relaxed and more confident, but as a person starts to drink more alcohol, they tend to feel more depressed and anxious. Self-medication with alcohol is not uncommon among people living with PTSD.

Prescription drugs

Prescription drugs have the potential for abuse if:

  • They are taken in higher doses than are recommended by the doctor.
  • They are taken for a purpose other than medically intended.
  • Someone takes pills prescribed for someone else.

Someone who is living with chronic pain, for example, is not likely to experience a “high” followed by a feeling of deep relaxation when taking narcotic pain medication as directed by their doctor, even if they also have depression and a history of child abuse. If pain medications or sedatives are abused, and a patient also starts taking narcotics to self-medicate his or her depression or anxiety without a prescription, the door is opened wide for addiction.

Illicit drugs

Illicit drugs have always been on the list of substances of choice for addicts. Some people choose to self-medicate with marijuana to deal with their feelings of depression or anxiety, while others choose to use cocaine, amphetamines or methamphetamine to get a high. Most of these substances are classified as stimulants, and excite the pleasure center in the brain, making them highly addictive.

connection between child abuse and addiction

Find Help and Healing for Addiction After Child Abuse

Addiction is not a disease that exists in a vacuum. No one wakes up one day and makes a decision to become an addict. There is always an underlying reason for the addiction, and this long-term disease is borne of some type of emotional pain.

Those affected by addiction are looking for a way to deal with their pain, and their drug and alcohol use is a symptom of the problem. When they are drunk or high, they can shut down, tune out or stop feeling negative emotions for a time. In a situation where the issue involves deep hurt at the hands of those who were supposed to love and protect them, the pain runs deep.

The good news is help and hope are available. At 12 Keys Rehab Center, we understand the needs of clients who have experienced trauma, including PTSD and child abuse. We can offer help and healing to our clients and their families.

connection between child abuse and addiction

Our holistic approach treats the whole person, and a low client-to-therapist ratio means you will get the individualized attention you need. With our help, you will be able to address the underlying emotional reasons for your addiction. This approach, along with the 12-step model of addiction treatment, has provided us with excellent results.

12 Keys Rehab is a safe place for you to start your recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and heal the hurt you’ve been carrying with you for far too long. Call us today to start your personal journey of healing.

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