Addiction shapes families in powerful and long-lasting ways, which is why experts often call it a “family disease.” Children who witness drug use in the home—and the chaos that swirls around parents who are chronically high or hung over—are especially vulnerable to addiction’s toxic influence. It injects fear into children’s senses of personal safety and security, often scarring their psyches with emotional wounds and other signs of trauma. Many of these problems will only become apparent after years of stewing, but the good news is that parents who get sober can fight back to reverse much of the damage they cause their loved ones. To learn more about how moms and dads can use their recoveries to give their loved ones a fresh start, read on.

Stress: Fuel that Feeds AddictionCan Addiction Cause Trauma in Family Members?

Although no one can pinpoint the exact root of addiction, theories abound. One that many recovery experts accept is that chronic stress and trauma during childhood often raise the risk of developing substance-abuse disorders later in life. Early life experiences program the brain and body to maneuver in the environment that it encounters. A calm, nurturing upbringing orients children to thrive in most conditions. On the other hand, a stressful, lonely childhood conditions kids to scan conditions for signs of scarcity, anxiety and chaos. Of course, not all stress is bad, as everyone learns to cope with mild doses in order to build their systems up for the larger challenges of later life. However, problems occur when stress comes in “doses” that are too large, unpredictable or sustained, and children usually have little to no control over these issues. In essence, the more stressful your childhood experiences are—and the greater variety of stressors you experience—the higher your odds of addiction become for later life.

Many studies have examined this link, such as study on Adverse Childhood Experiences, which found multiple links between severe childhood stress and all types of addictions, including overeating[1]. Being exposed to multiple adverse childhood experiences (such as neglect due to parental drug use, among other traumas) were shown to triple the likelihood of kids becoming smokers as adults. This problem also increased children’s susceptibility to becoming alcoholics at a rate of five times the average for children raised without major stressors. Lastly, boys who were exposed to four or more stressors, such as the death or a parent due to overdose and emotional neglect, were a whopping 46 times more likely to become intravenous drug users later in life.

Trauma, Childhood and Brain Changes

A small but intriguing study reported by TIME Magazine links these risks to specific changes in the brain[2]. It explains that trauma disrupts certain neural networks associated with increased chances of substance use disorders and depression in teens. Analysis of the data suggests that these changes raise vulnerability to depression, because it links thoughts and one’s interpretation of language with focusing on the negative aspects of life. Susceptibility to addiction appears to result from an inability to regulate emotions more generally. Together, the findings show that addiction problems have more to do with people’s attempts to manage or flee pain than their desire to seek pleasure. These data also suggest that simple drug exposure is insufficient on its own to trigger addiction.

Treatment and Healing for Family Trauma

Although the statistics and research findings are grim, parents in addiction recovery should not feel discouraged. There are plenty of ways to rebuild a strong connection between parents and children, and that bond will go a long way toward restoring your child’s sense of security and safeguarding her future. The following strategies might help you:

Keep in mind that one of the most important ways to prepare your children for the real world is to teach them about drug and alcohol abuse. Providing them facts within the context of your own story can be particularly powerful. Share your insight into why you started using drugs and how you moved from experimenting with them into addiction. Address their fears that you may relapse by describing tools you regularly use to stay sober, like attending support group meetings, avoiding toxic relationships and reaching out for professional help.

Recovery from Addiction and Mental Health for LGBT Individuals

If you or someone you love struggles with substance abuse and trauma, then know that help is available. Admissions coordinators at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can guide you to wellness, so do not go it alone when help is just one phone call away. Start your recovery now by reaching out for professional support today.


[1] Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

[2] Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2012/08/01/how-childhood-trauma-may-make-the-brain-vulnerable-to-addiction-depression/

[3] Retrieved from http://www.aaets.org/article230.htm

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