Linking Early-Life Trauma to Adult-Life Addiction

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The impact of early-life trauma on adult-life behavior is well-documented and unquestioned. Since the mid-1990s, therapists have known that neglect and abuse endured in childhood and adolescence can and do impact us as adults. Our sense of identity, our self-worth, our ability to attach and form relationships, our worldview, and even our health are affected by early-life trauma. And the more trauma we experience during childhood, the more varied and adverse our later-life responses are likely to be.

For example, one well-known study shows that individuals who experienced four or more significant traumatic experiences (things like divorce, death of a parent, serious accident or illness, abandonment, physical abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, etc.) before the age of 18 are:

  • 1.8 times as likely to smoke cigarettes
  • 1.9 times as likely to become obese
  • 2.4 times as likely to experience ongoing anxiety
  • 2.5 times as likely to experience panic reactions
  • 3.6 times as likely to be depressed
  • 3.6 times as likely to qualify as promiscuous
  • 6.6 times as likely to engage in early-life sexual intercourse
  • 7.2 times as likely to become alcoholic
  • 11.1 times as likely to become intravenous drug users

Countless other studies also find an undeniable link between the experience of early-life trauma and numerous adult-life symptoms and disorders. Stated simply, kids who deal with neglect and abuse (emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, etc.) will adapt and cope as best they can. Often, particularly if an adult in their life cannot be trusted to support them in healthy ways (usually because the adult is addicted, inconsistent, or the perpetrator of the trauma in question), the child will turn to an emotionally distracting substance or behavior – eating, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, porn, gaming, etc.

And those coping skills tend to carry forth into their life as an adult, negatively impacting their physical, emotional, psychological, and relational well-being in ways described above. Often, the individual will engage in these maladaptive coping behaviors impulsively and/or compulsively, despite the negative consequences they cause. And they do this without ever connecting the dots back to their childhood and the unresolved trauma that pushed them away from people and toward substances and behaviors.

Early-life trauma, abuse, and neglect unquestionably have significant and long-lasting effects on those who experience them. The most obvious manifestations tend to be addictions and serious psychological disorders. Less obvious manifestations may include things like a tendency toward isolation, a constant sense of disappointment, and unwarranted outbursts of anger or other strong emotions. Notably, these less obvious manifestations can, over time, be just as damaging to the individual (and those around the individual) as the more obvious symptoms.

For more information about trauma and treatment of trauma, plus referrals to clinicians who specialize in this work, visit the website of the International Association of Trauma Professionals at For a quick assessment of childhood trauma, generate an Adverse Childhood Experiences Score (ACES). This easy-to-use ten-question tool can be found at this link. If you have questions about trauma and it’s impact on your or a loved one’s addiction, please email us via this link.