What’s the Connection Between Child Abuse and Substance Use?

It may be a truism to say that all children need a safe, nurturing and stable home to grow up in. Unfortunately, though, these conditions are  not always met. Even in households where a child might appear to have all they need, a different situation may be going on behind closed doors. Child abuse and neglect are serious problems in the United States, with one in seven children being victims of maltreatment in the past year. As the CDC reports, this statistic might actually be an underestimate. When damaged children transition into adulthood, they can take with them the traumatic stress accumulated during their most critical developmental years if they never sought help to face such traumas. This increases the likelihood of forming dangerous habits with drugs and alcohol that require addiction treatment.


Types of Maltreatment

There are different types of abuse that may be inflicted upon a child (under age 18) by any adult in a custodial role (not just parents). Abuse is defined as an action that “results in harm, the potential for harm or threat of harm to a minor.” The CDC cites four common types of abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. While physical and sexual abuse speak for themselves, emotional abuse and neglect can be less evident. The former includes behaviors that aim to deteriorate a child’s self-worth, including name-calling, manipulation, shaming, threatening, withholding love or intentionally rejecting them. This article cites some other examples: 

  • Confinement 
  • Physical conflict between adults in the presence of children
  • Exclusion from community or family events
  • Destruction of a child’s property
  • Humiliation and degradation

Neglect can be more subtle, and if you’ve experienced it, you might agree that the subtleness doesn’t mute the pain it inflicts. Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide a child with their most basic physical and emotional needs, like food, clothing, medical care or paying them proper attention. 


Keep Eyes Peeled for Red Flags of Child Abuse

The traumatic stress that victims of abuse experience can manifest in different ways, depending on age and type of abuse. Preschool children may experience nightmares, eat poorly, express fear of being separated from a parent and cry or scream more than seems normal. Kids in elementary school may feel guilty, shameful or anxious. They may even develop poor sleeping habits or have difficulty concentrating. Older children in middle and high school may become depressed, develop eating disorders or self-harming behaviors, experiment with drugs or alcohol or engage in risky sexual behavior. The Child Welfare Information Gateway explains that the child may be neglected or abused if they: 

  • Are highly sensitive and watchful of their surroundings, as if bracing for something; 
  • Have not received help for physical or medical problems the parents know about;
  • Have learning difficulties and/or trouble concentrating that isn’t due to a known physical or psychological problem;
  • Want to stay at school or other activities to avoid going home; 
  • Express extreme and polarized behaviors (i.e., either overly compliant or demanding, passive or aggressive, adult-like or child-like).


Effects of Abuse on the Mind and Body

Adults who experienced chronic abuse or neglect as a child likely experienced traumatic stress. This can have negative consequences for brain development by inducing structural (i.e., decreased size or connectivity) and chemical changes that cause learning, memory and attention deficits. Research also shows that these changes can lead to long-term changes in brain circuits involved in stress responses. If you’ve gone through chronic abuse or neglect, you might notice that, compared to others, you have significant difficulty coping while under pressure.

Individuals of abuse also demonstrate a higher prevalence of psychological symptoms that tend to co-occur with substance use disorders. Some conditions to be aware of include post-traumatic stress disorder, somatization disorders, eating disorders, depression, personality disorders and suicidal behavior.


Adults with Abuse History at Risk

As an adult, you may have painful memories that you’d rather forget, or maybe you have developed some negative behavioral patterns that you know you should address. It can be uncomfortable and taxing to uproot deeply entrenched issues, especially because those experiences have helped shape who you are today. Nevertheless, it is critical to face these issues head-on, as the strings of an abusive past tend to linger into adulthood. Evidence suggests that victims of abuse are at an increased risk of developing mental illness and/or a substance use disorder. 

For instance, a study conducted in Atlanta, Georgia, examined the relationship between childhood trauma, substance use and PTSD in 587 patients. The researchers found high rates of lifetime dependence on the following substances: 39% alcohol, 34.1% cocaine, 6.2% heroin/opiates, and 44.8% marijuana. The level of use was also associated with levels of childhood abuse and current PTSD symptoms. Their results indicate that the amount of trauma one experiences may progressively add to the severity of substance use. In light of all this information, the take-home message is this: if you were treated poorly as a child, consider the benefits of getting help today. 


Every child requires a stable and nurturing environment to grow up to be a healthy, functioning adult. Nevertheless, many children are not so lucky and are victims of abuse and neglect. Victims of abuse demonstrate a higher prevalence of psychological symptoms and mental illness, which commonly co-occur with drug and alcohol use. This risky combination can elicit an addiction. At Casa Palmera in Los Angeles, California, we understand that childhood helps shape the person you become. You can’t control how you got here, but you can control where you’re going. We can help you heal from childhood trauma that led to addiction. Contact us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.