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Recognizing the Correlation Between Child Trauma & Teen Addiction

Teen/child facing trauma from parental domestic dispute  

Childhood exposure to traumatic life experiences, such as abuse, neglect, accident or illness has been associated with an increased risk of developing psychiatric conditions later in life. Child trauma also has a significant link to substance use disorders and PTSD. Research has shown that the association between trauma and substance abuse is especially strong for teenagers with PTSD. Research has found that up to 59% of adolescents with PTSD go on to develop substance abuse problems.

Early traumatic experiences can elevate the risk of addiction as individuals may try to self-medicate or enhance their mood by using drugs and alcohol. In the National Survey of Adolescents, teenagers who had experienced sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to have used substances in the past or to be currently using them as compared to adolescents without a trauma history.

Effects of Childhood Trauma on Teen Development

Early childhood trauma is prevalent in our society. Data from the National Survey of Adolescents shows that:

Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to trauma, as their brains are still developing. During a traumatic event, a child’s brain enters an elevated state of stress, and fear-related hormones are triggered. When a child endures long-lasting trauma, their brain stays in this heightened state, altering their feelings, actions and thoughts. As time goes on, traumatic experiences can have a big impact on a child’s future actions, emotional and mental development and physical well-being.

The effects of childhood trauma can increase the risk of developing an addiction. Adolescents may develop an addiction resulting from their attempts to manage emotional discomfort related to trauma exposure and traumatic stress symptoms. Teenagers may use alcohol and drugs to manage negative emotions and triggers that are associated with the trauma. Youth may also try to numb their feelings using substances so that they do not feel any emotion.

Research on the effects of childhood trauma, substance abuse and mental health conditions shows that PTSD may make it more challenging for teenagers to stop using alcohol and drugs. Individuals with PTSD may have elevated drug cravings due to frequent exposure to triggers from their trauma.

Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

There are several long-term effects of childhood trauma on an adolescent’s quality of life. A 2015 study found that the more childhood trauma that a person experienced, the higher their risk of health and wellness difficulties later on in life. Adolescents exposed to trauma may form a heightened stress response, which can impair emotional regulation, cause sleeping difficulties, decrease immune functioning and elevate their risk for physical illness as they grow. Physical long term effects of childhood trauma may include asthma, cardiac illness, stroke and diabetes.

Another long term effect of childhood trauma is relationship difficulties. When a youth experiences trauma, they learn that their caregiver cannot be trusted and generalize this viewpoint to the rest of the world. This perspective makes it challenging for adolescents to develop meaningful friendships and romantic relationships as they get older.

Childhood trauma may result in an adolescent engaging in frequent risky behaviors, especially if they have PTSD. This elevated risk-taking could be a result of changes caused to the part of the brain that assesses risky situations. Adolescents with PTSD may have difficulty distinguishing the difference between real and perceived threats.

Childhood trauma can also greatly impact the emotional well-being of a teenager. Adolescents may experience feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, and anger. Teens can develop mental health challenges as a result of childhood trauma and have higher rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD and self-harming behaviors.

  • Anxiety: Anxiety from childhood trauma can result after a child’s brain becomes wired to consistently feel threatened and fearful. Trauma can shape the child’s brain to constantly be on guard for danger. Anxiety can manifest in a specific phobia or PTSD.
  • Depression: Numerous studies have confirmed that there is an increased risk of depression from childhood trauma. Childhood trauma is linked with depression in children, adolescents and adults later in life. Many adolescents have never gotten an opportunity to process traumatic events or had their feelings validated or challenged. Unprocessed occurrences can result in inaccurate beliefs about a person’s self-worth and value, which can negatively impact an adolescent’s mood.
  • PTSD: If childhood trauma is left untreated, there is also a strong possibility that a teenager could develop PTSD. PTSD from childhood trauma can be found in 1-6% of boys and 3-15% of girls. Dealing with PTSD from childhood trauma can be challenging as teenagers may experience nightmares, mental images of the trauma and frequent flashbacks. Teenagers can also be triggered by reminders of the trauma and may avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. Adolescents with PTSD may feel emotionally numb, irritable or detached and have trouble sleeping and concentrating due to a hyper-alert emotional state. Data from the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement shows that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adolescents age 13-18 is 5%, with an estimated 1.5% having severe impairment. The prevalence of PTSD among teenagers was 8%, while among males it was 2.3%.

Teens Coping with Trauma May Turn to Drugs and Alcohol

Childhood trauma can be one of the factors that contributes to teenage substance abuse. Adolescents may use alcohol and drugs as a way of coping with trauma to alleviate emotional distress. Teenagers may seek the pleasurable high that comes from using substances, trying to avoid strong, negative emotions, or trying to self-medicate feelings of anxiety and depression.

  • Self-medicating anxiety or depression: Adolescents who have experienced childhood trauma may attempt to cope by self-medicating with alcohol. Using substances can be a coping mechanism for teenage anxiety and teenage depression, as drugs and alcohol can be a temporary distraction from emotional distress and can help alleviate symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Teenagers may feel calm, confident and happy, which they might have difficulty attaining while sober.
  • To numb or block painful reminders of trauma: Some adolescents may not know how to cope with traumatic experiences and want to emotionally numb themselves. Numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol can assist a teenager to block out painful reminders of the childhood trauma.

Substance Abuse Further Increases Trauma Risk

Substance abuse can be a risk factor for further trauma, as there is a direct link between using substances and engaging in risky behaviors. Risky behaviors can make an adolescent more vulnerable to getting hurt and to experiencing further trauma. Teenagers may put themselves at risk of sexual assault, rape, physical violence and other negative experiences.

Treating Childhood Trauma and Teen Addiction

Treating childhood trauma and teen addiction should occur simultaneously in an integrated, comprehensive treatment approach. Treatment should address both an adolescent’s mental health condition and their substance use disorder to ensure that both conditions are fully addressed. Teen addiction treatment may involve inpatient or outpatient care and helps an adolescent to achieve and maintain sobriety. Adolescent addiction treatment can address substance use and withdrawal in addition to providing a teenager with education and helping to address family issues.

The main objective of trauma treatment is to educate and provide healthy and effective coping strategies for teens. Music therapy for child trauma is an effective intervention, as it decreases anxiety, provides emotional relief and reduces stress levels. CBT, EMDR, family therapy and DBT are other powerful interventions to address childhood trauma.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is a specific cognitive behavioral therapy for childhood trauma. It seeks to help a child process trauma while coping with upsetting thoughts and feelings. The advantage of CBT for teenagers is that it assists an adolescent in understanding and changing thought patterns to change feelings and behaviors.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR): EDMR trauma therapy is a therapeutic intervention that is used to alleviate psychological distress. EMDR is an effective treatment for PTSD from childhood trauma. EMDR childhood trauma treatment helps a child to relive traumatic experiences in short bursts while eye movements are directed by a mental health practitioner. EMDR is based on the premise that emotional distress is less upsetting when attention is being diverted elsewhere. Eye movements help an individual to experience a lesser emotional reaction when recalling traumatic events.
  • Family Therapy: Family trauma therapy helps all members of a family process, cope with and recover from a traumatic event. Trauma can impact family relationships and interfere with healthy family functioning.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT for trauma entails learning skills that center on developing mindfulness, improving emotional regulation, enhancing distress tolerance and improving interpersonal effectiveness. Mindfulness helps an adolescent to work towards acceptance while understanding that reactivity and escape are not always the best options. Emotional regulation helps a teenager to alleviate distress related to unhealthy emotional reactions and distress tolerance helps a teenager learn how to effectively cope with painful emotions. Interpersonal effectiveness helps an adolescent to improve assertive communication, relational techniques and self-confidence.

If a teenager that you know is struggling with addiction resulting from previous trauma or another cause, Next Generation Village can help. Call Next Generation Village today to explore your options of personalized and high-quality substance abuse treatment.

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