All forms of child abuse — physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect — can have severe and long-lasting consequences for individuals throughout their lives. For many adult survivors of child abuse, one of the potential impacts is substance abuse disorder (SUD). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than a third of adolescents affected by child abuse will have an SUD before they turn 18. 

Child abuse affects approximately one in four children in the US and can lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). While many children who grow up with trauma go on to lead healthy, productive lives, research suggests that it can lead to a higher risk of SUD later in life. 

Although not every child abuse survivor will struggle with substance abuse, there is a significant link between the two. Understanding the connection can be necessary for prevention and treatment. Continue reading to learn more about the link between the two.

Examining the Correlation Between Child Abuse and SUD

While the correlation between child abuse and substance use disorder is strong, it’s not always clear. For example, a child who has experienced abuse may develop a substance use disorder to cope with their trauma. But it’s also possible that some people may have an innate vulnerability to developing a substance use disorder, regardless of their upbringing. Studies have shown that a history of child abuse is one of the strongest predictors of substance abuse in adulthood.

There are many reasons this link may exist. First, child abuse can lead to long-term emotional and psychological problems. These problems can increase the risk of substance abuse to cope with the pain and stress.

Additionally, abuse and neglect can affect brain development, particularly in areas related to emotional regulation and impulse control. Emotion regulation is the process people use to modulate their feelings and behaviors in response to emotion-eliciting events. 

Emotion regulation strategies in childhood are typically developed through interactions with parents and other supportive adults. In a home environment that’s harmful or unsupportive due to childhood abuse, children are less likely to be exposed to appropriate behaviors of emotional expression and regulation modeled by primary caregivers and supportive adults.

A lack of emotion regulation can result in the inability of an individual to manage negative emotional states and impaired function in many environments across many relationships. As a result, people are challenged to manage stress and emotions in healthy ways. Researchers cite emotional dysregulation as a significant factor in increased risk for the development of problems with substance use and abuse.

The Effects of Substance Abuse on Survivors of Child Abuse

Substance abuse can have serious and long-lasting consequences for survivors of child abuse. It can lead to physical health problems, like liver and heart disease; exacerbate mental health problems; and result in overdoses. It can also make it more difficult for individuals to cope with the trauma of child abuse, interfering with the ability to process and work through challenging emotions, which makes it harder to heal from the abuse.

Treatment and Prevention

It’s important to note that not every child abuse survivor will struggle with substance abuse. However, for those who do, it’s vitally essential that they seek help to address the trauma of child abuse and substance abuse. Fortunately, early interventions after childhood exposure to trauma can help reduce the risk of substance abuse. 

Treatment for substance abuse often involves a combination of therapy, medication, and family and community support. It is also essential for individuals in treatment to address any underlying issues related to their abuse, such as trauma or mental health problems. Treating co-occurring addiction and childhood trauma simultaneously addresses the medical and behavioral aspects of substance abuse and provides targeted treatment for the contributing trauma-related triggers. 

Help Us End Child Abuse and Neglect

If you’re an adult child abuse survivor, EndCAN is always here for you with valuable resources, including information and tips about parenting and support to help you learn and heal.

EndCAN’s survivor community support group, Louder Than Silence, through Inspire, is a free, online community of support groups where people can feel safe and be authentic while anonymously sharing their experiences and learning from other people who have “been there.” 

Don’t suffer in silence. Breaking the silence is one way we can stop child abuse. When you’re ready, share your story so other adult survivors of child abuse know they’re not alone either.