Childhood Trauma and Addiction

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Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Childhood trauma and substance use disorders are unfortunately prevalent problems in the United States and many other nations.

According to a 2015 study that was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), about 10% of adults in the U.S., or more than 23 million Americans age 18 and older, will develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives [1].

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that about 60% of men and 50% of women will experience some form of trauma in their lives and that about 7% of these people will develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [2].

Clinical professionals have long noted that untreated trauma can raise a person’s risk for developing several behavioral health disorders, including addiction. In recent years, several researchers have focused their attention on the connection between trauma experienced during childhood and the development of substance use disorders later in life.

The Prevalence of Childhood Trauma in the U.S.

For research purposes, the many forms of childhood trauma are often grouped under the term adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines adverse childhood experiences as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years)” [3].

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Experiences that are included within the ACEs definition include being abused, neglected, or assaulted; witnessing acts of violence in school, at home, or in the community; and having a close family member die by suicide or attempt to die by suicide.

Other examples of ACEs include living in a household with a parent who has a mental health disorder or a substance use disorder or experiencing instability due to divorce, separation, or the incarceration of a close family member.

The CDC has reported the following statistics about the prevalence of childhood trauma in the United States:

  • More than 60% of surveyed adults report having experienced at least one type of ACE prior to the age of 17. About 16% of adults say that they experienced four or more types of ACEs [4].
  • About 14% of children under the age of 18 (or about one of every seven people in this age range) were victims of child abuse or neglect in 2019 [5].
  • One of every four girls and one of every 13 boys are sexually abused prior to age 18 [6].
  • Almost 20% of high school students say that they were bullied on school property in the previous 12 months. About 14% say that they were harassed via text messages, social media posts, or other electronic means [7].

The Relationship Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Several studies have established a connection between adverse childhood experiences and a wide range of negative outcomes later in life, including substance use and addiction.

An October 18, 2019, article on the Frontiers in Psychiatry website explored the impact of childhood trauma among women who had developed substance use disorders and co-occurring posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Among the 343 women who were studied, 90% reported being abused or neglected during childhood. The authors of the study found an association between the severity of childhood trauma and the nature of a woman’s experience with substance use and addiction later in life.

For example, women who reported “severe levels of all types of trauma” had a history of abusing alcohol and other drugs at an earlier age than other women, while those who reported either “severe sexual abuse and emotional abuse” or “severe levels of all types of trauma” had a history of more rapidly escalating substance abuse [8].

Woman seeking medical-aided recovery for Childhood TraumaThe findings in the Frontiers in Psychiatry study are consistent with those described in a February 12, 2019, report on the website of the journal Cogent Medicine.

In that article, the authors noted that a person’s likelihood of using illicit drugs and developing an addiction increases with the number of ACEs they have had. The authors also reported that people who scored higher on an ACE assessment were also more likely to struggle with psychosis and other “adverse psychiatric consequences associated with drug use” [9].

Comprehensive Solutions

The studies of the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and addiction demonstrate that the effects of trauma can continue to be felt long after the traumatic experience or experiences occurred. Because a history of childhood trauma can also increase a person’s risk for several other health concerns, it is vital that treatment professionals identify and address the full scope of their patients’ needs, including untreated trauma that has its origins in childhood.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has proved to be an effective means of treating people who have a history of adverse childhood experiences and other types of trauma. In a 2014 article in the Permanente Journal, author Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., reported that multiple studies had documented the effectiveness of EMDR in helping people overcome the effects of trauma.

“Twenty-four randomized controlled trials support the positive effects of EMDR therapy in the treatment of emotional trauma and other adverse life experiences relevant to clinical practice,” Dr. Shapiro wrote. “Seven of 10 studies reported EMDR therapy to be more rapid and/or more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy” [10].

Comprehensive care that includes appropriate programming for trauma, as well as evidence-based addiction treatment services, can significantly increase the likelihood that a patient who has a history of adverse childhood experiences will be able to achieve improved mental health and recovery.


[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018, September 13). How Common is PTSD in Adults?

[2] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015, November 18). 10 percent of US adults have drug use disorder at some point in their lives. National Institutes of Health.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 6). Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 6). Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 15). Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 30). Preventing Child Sexual Abuse. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, April 7). Preventing Youth Violence. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[8] Lotzin, A., Grundmann, J., Hiller, P., Pawils, S., & Schäfer, I. (2019, October 18). Profiles of Childhood Trauma in Women With Substance Use Disorders and Comorbid Posttraumatic Stress Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry.

[9] Zarse, E. M., Neff, M. R., Yoder, R., Chambers, R. A., Chambers, J. E., & Hulvershorn, L. (2019, February 12). The adverse childhood experiences questionnaire: Two decades of research on childhood trauma as a primary cause of adult mental illness, addiction, and medical diseases. Taylor & Francis.

[10] Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal, 18(1), 71–77.

About Our Sponsor:

Timberline Knolls BannerAt Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and girls who are living with mental health conditions such as substance use disorders and eating disorders. Our private facility offers female-only treatment programs for eating disorders, addiction, and a range of mental health conditions. We work closely with each person to develop treatment goals to maximize strengths while focusing on individual needs. Our treatment team understands that each woman has unique needs and that she must play a role in her journey to wellness.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 2, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 2, 2021
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.