Researchers have long known that there is a strong link between exposure to trauma in childhood and substance abuse later in life. However, more research was needed to understand further how this trauma actually causes substance abuse.
A recent study, by the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University, sought to fill in many of the gaps in the understanding of childhood trauma and substance abuse. It studied how trauma itself causes drug use later in life.
Researchers followed nearly 500 students who had been abused as toddlers and monitored them into their early teenage years. By following them, researchers hoped to see if they could better understand how trauma leads to substance abuse as children grow up.
Trauma and Substance Abuse
Childhood trauma and abuse are often tied to alcohol and drug use by parents. Children may see how their parents drink and use drugs, which could influence their own risk of substance abuse later on. By learning bad habits from their parents, children may choose to imitate them and drink or take drugs when they are older.
Researchers, however, suspect that it is more than just imitation that leads children of abusive parents to use drugs themselves. They believe that the trauma causes changes in the brain which increase the likelihood that a child will use drugs.
How Trauma Changes the Brain
How, exactly, does the trauma lead to changes in drug use? Researchers believe that the trauma experienced by the child disrupts many of the connections in the brain that are involved in impulse control. When these circuits are disrupted, it can lead to a lack of inhibition and difficulty with self-control. This leads to a wide variety of psychological problems, and a common one is substance abuse.
Children that are abused are more likely to drink, smoke, and use other drugs because of the changes in impulse control. Poor impulse control means it is hard to make healthy decisions, and it increases the likelihood of abusing drugs.
Many of the early signs of these issues may be ignored. The parents, who have been abusive, may not be involved enough to notice the changes, or may not care. At school, children’s behavioral issues and poor performance could be linked to other psychological conditions, not making the connection to abuse. Left unaddressed, these behaviors can then turn into substance abuse as the child grows older.
There Is Still Hope for Victims of Abuse
The research, however, did include some good news. If caught early, behavioral problems relating to trauma can often be controlled through therapy. The researchers say that means that it is crucial to report any signs of child abuse as soon as possible. By identifying the abuse and treating the children as soon as possible, the child could avoid developing their own substance abuse problems and live a healthy life.