Not so long ago, addiction was considered a moral failure on the part of individuals. More recently, addiction has been considered a disease. Current thinking, however, is that addiction is a result of brain dysfunction. In many cases, the dysfunction stems from experiencing trauma, especially childhood trauma.
Traumas in childhood often create a predilection to addictions later in life. Trauma could be sexual abuse, physical abuse, long-term neglect, car accidents, divorce of parents, death of parents, being connected to an event such as a house fire, flood, or tornado, and more. It’s now known that trauma is not merely a bad memory to “get over.” Trauma causes changes in the brain and body, impacts emotions and behaviors, and can lead to addiction. Children suffering from trauma may be witnesses, not necessarily victims of abuse. This includes families where siblings were abused and those who witnessed domestic violence. Additionally, trauma in the lives of children might include the death of parents, and those who were adopted.
Many therapists and psychiatrists consider untreated childhood mental disorders, including the impact of trauma, as not just one possible factor, but the primary risk factor for later addictions. The mental health profession is working to better understand and integrate the connections between treating mental health issues and addiction problems.
The effects of trauma are slowly being better understood. However, it is still common for children to be misdiagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The continued non-treatment of trauma pushes people to live in a state of hyper vigilance, suppression of emotions, and inhibition of feelings. This internal pain may lead to teen or adult addiction in an effort to soothe the internal discomfort.
Trauma and addiction can be an unending cycle: feel bad, use drugs or alcohol to self medicate (ameliorate the pain and anguish), feel bad for the drug or alcohol abuse, continue self medicating . . . and so on. In order to help someone overcome their addiction, the underlying trauma needs to be addressed and treated in conjunction with the drug, chemical, or alcohol misuse.
For teens with addictions, parents, teachers, doctors, and therapists should examine the possibility that the addiction stems from trauma in the child’s early years. In stable, functioning families, that may be easy to determine through discussions and review of family history. In families where abuse and neglect are hidden or unidentified, it becomes difficult to determine the level of abuse due to shame and secrecy. And for teens who may have been adopted, or lived in foster care, there may only be snippets of information about their early years. This may make it extremely challenging to unearth specific information about trauma that may have occurred during the formative first three years of life.
Teens with addictions as a result of trauma will have lived much of their childhood in a state of stress and anxiety. Until the trauma is disclosed, discussed, and integrated into a person’s emotional self, the internal pain, and the resulting addiction, will continue.
Trauma is treated through various forms of psychotherapy. Talk therapy, biblio therapy, psychodrama, and art therapy are possible treatment approaches. However, if the trauma happens pre-verbally, the child, teen, or adult needs to work with someone trained in early childhood trauma issues. Without help, those suffering from pre-verbal trauma have no process, no system, and no way to evaluate and reintegrate the topic in an emotionally healthy way.
Anyone in a position to help a teen or young adult with addiction issues should be aware of how early childhood trauma may have contributed to the drug, chemical, or alcohol dependency. Read. Ask questions. Share information. Determine if a trauma in the teen’s early years may need to be treated along with the drug and chemical abuse.