boy staring out window When you or a loved one suffers from the disease of addiction, one of the first things you want is answers.

At Transitions Recovery Program, we hear the same questions again and again from patients and their families

Questions like, “How can I stop using?” usually come first. 

Once that’s out of the way, the next question is often, “Why is this happening?,” “What made me this way?,” or “What caused my addiction?” 

Like any other disease, there are certain risk factors that contribute to the development of Substance Use Disorder (SUD). A family history of SUD is one obvious factor in the likelihood of developing the disease. Other factors are less well-known. 

Today we’ll look at 5 childhood experiences that can predispose patients to struggle with the disease of addiction. These 5 experiences were first linked to SUD in the famous CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study undertaken by Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997. 

Substance Abuse Cause #1: Emotional Abuse or Neglect

boy looking through hole in boxWhen it comes to abuse, we often think of physical abuse as the culprit for causing addictive behaviors later in life. However, the ACE Study found that childhood emotional abuse is just as likely to contribute to SUD.

Emotional abuse has many faces. It can be threatening a child with violence, yelling at them, or belittling them. Other forms of emotional abuse are more subtle: ignoring the child, isolating the child, or failing to acknowledge and respond to their feelings.

For people who experienced emotional abuse or neglect as a child, the trauma is long-lasting and can affect many different health concerns, including addiction.

Substance Abuse Cause #2: Mother Treated Violently

mom kissing baby girlChildren who are physically and emotionally abused grow into adults who are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Interestingly, watching others be abused can also lead to a higher likelihood of developing SUD. 

The ACE Study found, in particular, that children raised in homes with domestic violence were much more likely to face negative health outcomes later in life. Frequently, this takes the form of a child watching their mother or stepmother be subjected to physical violence at the hands of their father, stepfather, or mother’s boyfriend. Seeing mom be hit, slapped, pushed, grabbed, kicked, bitten or receive threats of violence with weapons like guns or knives all fall into this category. 

The trauma of a domestically violent home raises cortisol levels in the child, which can lead to a lifelong dysregulation of stress hormones. Frequently, our patients point to stress as a primary trigger for substance use. It should come as no surprise that those who experience more stress as children would be more likely to develop SUD later in life. 

Substance Abuse Cause #3: Mental Health Concerns in the Household 

person with mental health concerns

Having a family member with mental health issues in the household is a another key adverse childhood experience predictive of SUD.

Whether it’s anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, or some other condition, the presence of mental health issues in the household affects every family member deeply. 

This is especially true when it’s the father or mother who struggles with mental health concerns. In their own health struggles, caregivers with a mental health condition often don’t have the capacity to adequately provide for the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of children. Other times, the focus of caregiving energy shifts from the child to the family member struggling with mental illness. 

This lack of focus on the child results in lasting problems with self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem and these deficits can result in drug and alcohol abuse later in life.

Substance Abuse Cause #4: Parental Separation or Divorce 

Children need stability to thrive. When that stability is upset by separation or divorce, children are more likely to turn to substance abuse, delinquency, and aggression. Although the process of divorce itself can be stressful, the lead-up to a parental split can be equally unpleasant. Studies have shown that the rates of SUD in children actually increase in anticipation of divorce—indicating that the turmoil at home begins long before the divorce papers are signed. 

In addition to the stress and trauma of a divorce, children also face adverse experiences in single-parent households. Families with separated or divorced parents have fewer resources, are more socially isolated, and often lack significant coping resources. 

Like any other ACE in the Kaiser study, parental separation and divorce can contribute to adverse health consequences later in life—one of them being substance abuse. 

Substance Abuse Cause #5: Incarcerated Family Member

Having an immediate family member removed from the home and placed in detention is just as disruptive—if not more so—than divorce and separation. 

Having a family member involved in the criminal justice system involves multiple traumas. The interruption in the parent-child relationship and the loss of a positive role model in the household is only one of them. Consider the uncertainty and instability associated with the entire criminal justice process including arrest, pre-trial detention, conviction, jail, probation, imprisonment, and parole. This intense level of interaction with the criminal justice system places enormous stress on the entire family. 

On a practical level, jail time for an immediate family member means one less person in the home to provide for the child materially and emotionally. With the family stretched so thin, it’s easy for the needs of children to take a backseat. It should come as no surprise that adults with a childhood history of family incarceration are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

History Is Not Destiny—Negative Childhood Experiences Don’t Have to Cause SUD

While the ACE study is helpful for identifying factors that may contribute to the development of SUD, learning about how negative childhood experience can have lasting health consequences can feel overwhelming and discouraging. The good news is that no matter how high your ACE score is, having just one positive relationship in your life can guard against the damaging effects of childhood trauma. 

If you’re curious about your ACE score, you can access the questionnaire here

If you’re ready to talk to a counselor about getting help for substance abuse, we’re always ready to answer your questions. Call Transitions Recovery Program today at 1-800-626-1980.

This content was written by addiction treatment specialist Erin Gilday.