Childhood Trauma and How It Affects Substance Use Disorder 

November 8, 2019 

Have you ever looked at a crying child and thought “worthless junkie?” I don’t know you, but I’ll wager a guess that nah, you probably haven’t. I’m asking this question, though, because there is a very strong link between childhood trauma and problematic substance use later in life. Very often, those people who are being wrongfully denigrated as “worthless junkies” were once hurt children who needed compassionate care. Well, they still need and deserve compassionate care. Better understanding the link between childhood trauma and addiction may help make that more clear.

Childhood Trauma Includes Many Different Types of Experiences

When we think about “trauma,” we often have a picture in our minds of someone being abused by someone else, getting trapped in a natural disaster, or being involved in a bad accident.

Of course, there are other types of trauma that adults experience as well, but for children especially, trauma is a lot more expansive than intentional maltreatment. Children are less able than adults to contextualize their experiences, so it can be harder for them to make sense of a loss, or to comprehend that feelings are temporary. So for children, extreme stress and trauma can come from an event like parental divorce, losing all their friends to a big move, or witnessing a family member deal with mental illness or addiction. This clarification isn’t intended to place blame on anyone; sometimes partners work better separated, families have to move, and people struggle with mental illness or addiction. This is simply a meant to help you to understand that, for children, emotional trauma can be just as impacting as the types of physical maltreatment we more generally associate with the word “trauma.”

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

According to the National Survey of Adolescents, one out of every eight 17-year -olds in the United States has experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lives, and one in four kids experiences at least one form of trauma before the age of 16. At least one in five teens between 12 and 16 will engage in substance use in some capacity. Those are pretty significant numbers. Our youth are coming into contact with trauma and drugs at very similar rates. And that’s no coincidence. The same survey found that teens who had experienced assault—whether physical or sexual in nature—were three times more likely to try drugs.

The link between PTSD and substance use has been well established over the years. Although different studies come up with different exact figures, the number of people with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder tends to hover around the 60% mark. Which means more than half of people affected by addiction are also dealing with intense trauma. That figure also holds true for youth; one survey of adolescents in addiction treatment found that as high as 70% of these young people were also dealing with trauma.

While youth who experience trauma may often start using drugs at an early age, their issues with substance use typically don’t stop before reaching adulthood—unless comprehensive and evidence-based care is provided early. Without individualized, compassionate care, the majority of young people who experience trauma grow up to develop some form of substance use disorder. One study found the highest correlations between childhood trauma and PTSD in that particular urban population with misuse of alcohol and marijuana, followed by cocaine and then heroin. Depressants like alcohol and heroin are often associated with PTSD because they dampen the central nervous system, which becomes overactive during a PTSD episode.

It’s easy for someone who has never experienced addiction to look at someone in the worst depths of the disorder and think that they are choosing to misbehave, or are somehow less capable than other people. But that is simply not true. Often, when you’re looking at someone who is struggling with a chronic, treatment-resistant substance use disorder, you’re seeing someone who has experienced a great deal of trauma from an early age. You wouldn’t blame a child for being hurt—so don’t blame a person with a substance use disorder for being addicted.

The Ammon Foundation believes that when individuals are holistically and strategically supported to build purposeful lives, the likelihood of them maintaining their recovery substantially increases. We provide this support via our Ammon Recovery Scholars Program. Our program goals include: removing financial barriers through financial scholarships; providing strategic support for recipients through offering personal, professional and academic support; and creating a supportive peer community committed to combating the stigma associated with addiction by promoting that recovery is possible. We are committed to giving away at least $100,000 in scholarships annually and are looking to fund education as a stepping stone to stable employment, safe housing and adequate healthcare. To find out more about our programs, or to apply for an educational scholarship, please click here or email