The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse

The exact causes of substance use disorder vary from person to person. Current research suggests that multiple factors are responsible
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The exact causes of substance use disorder vary from person to person. Current research suggests that multiple factors are responsible for the likelihood that someone will develop a substance use disorder, including psychological, biological, socio-cultural, and environmental factors.

Environmental factors have one of the strongest roles in the development of substance use disorder. Some examples of environmental influences include a lack of familial support, the area a person grew up in, the presence of substances in the home, or experiencing childhood trauma. 

Studies show that exposure to traumatic stress during childhood significantly increases the risk of substance use later in life.1 Children who grow up in tumultuous environments and experience things like neglect, abuse, or the loss of a caregiver are more likely to abuse substances when they grow up. 

How does a traumatic childhood instigate a pathway to addiction?

Using Substances as Coping Mechanisms

One of the primary reasons that people who experience childhood trauma turn to substances is a lack of healthy coping skills. Typically, children who grow up in harmful home environments lack adults who can teach them how to cope with difficult emotions and situations properly. Instead, they turn to whatever methods they can find around them, and oftentimes, that means alcohol or drugs.

Unfortunately, using substances as a coping mechanism only worsens the problem. Rather than working through the challenges that come with childhood trauma, the individual masks their difficulties with the mental haze provided by alcohol and drugs. The longer they avoid seeking help and continue using drugs, the more complex their problem becomes.

Self-Medicating Childhood Trauma with Substances

Childhood trauma not only increases the likelihood of developing substance use disorders, but it also leads to other mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Again, children who grow up in harmful homes often lack access to proper mental healthcare services. They’re unlikely to receive the necessary support they need to work through their challenges.

Once mental health problems develop, children who experience traumatic stress while growing up may turn to substances to self-medicate. They find an alternative solution in alcohol and drugs since they cannot receive the mental healthcare they need. Over time, this can cause substance use disorder to develop, leaving them with co-occurring disorders2 .

How to Treat Childhood Trauma and Substance Use Disorder

Childhood trauma can often result in mental health conditions such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. If the child grows up and also develops a substance use disorder, they must work through both conditions. Treating co-occurring disorders requires a specialized approach to care that not all facilities can provide.

Facilities like Clearview Treatment Programs understand the complexities that come with treating co-occurring mental health disorders. We see the scars that childhood trauma leaves behind and offer an empathetic and compassionate approach to care. Overcoming the challenges of your past takes time, but we’re here to help you every step of the way.

If you’d like to learn more about treatment at Clearview Treatment Programs, call us at 310-455-5258 or submit an online contact form. One of our admissions specialists will be in touch and help you find the program that best suits your needs, no matter where you’re at in your journey. Take your first step toward healing, and reach out to us today.


  1. StatPearls Publishing. (2023). Substance Use Disorder.
  2. MedlinePlus. (2022). Substance use disorder.

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