Whether it’s a broken bone, perpetually scraped knees or a healthy fear of the dark, no one leaves childhood unscathed. At some point, we were all faced with events in our past that left us scarred, scared or both. These events, though frightening at the time, help the body and brain development and mature. Unfortunately, some children suffer from far more traumatic experiences than others. As children are exposed to things like neglect, abuse or addiction in the home, these adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can cause lifelong stress, pain and suffering. Children struggling to cope with ACEs often grow into adults who abuse substances to numb the pain of their past.
“Trauma plays an incredibly huge part in addiction,” states Maeve O’Neill, Vice President of Compliance at Vertava Health. “There are people that would say that’s the root of addiction.”
With approximately 35 million children in the United States suffering from at least one traumatic childhood event, it’s more important than ever to understand how easily childhood trauma can turn into an addiction.
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous effect on lifelong health and happiness. Due to this, significant time and resources have been poured into the study of how early life events impact adults, specifically how adverse childhood experiences influence future behaviors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adverse childhood experiences have been linked to:
- risky health behaviors
- chronic health conditions
- low life potential
- early death
The more a child is exposed to traumatic events, the higher the likelihood is of them experiencing one of these unfortunate outcomes.
Adverse childhood experiences can be single, acute events or repeated trauma sustained over time. These events occur any time before the age of 18. A child does not need to remember a traumatic childhood experience to suffer from the effects of it.
ACEs can include any number of the following events:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Witnessing physical or mental abuse at home
- Witnessing substance abuse at home
- Mental illness at home
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated family member
- Death of a parent
- Community violence
- Living in poverty
While children who suffer through these events are more likely to face the negative effects of ACEs, there isn’t a definitive way to know what type of experience will cause lifelong trauma for a child.
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What Is The ACE Score?
In 1998, the stunning results of The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study were published. The report uncovered a definitive link between childhood trauma and chronic diseases and mental illnesses that people develop over time as an adult.
With this new information, the study’s researchers then designed a test to determine a person’s ACE score. An ACE score is made up of 10 questions that cover everything from physical and sexual abuse to divorced parents to the incarceration of a family member. For each type of traumatic event listed that a person suffered through before the age of 18, they are assigned one point. The higher the ACE score, the greater the risk of future medical and emotional problems.
While the ACE score can be a great diagnostic tool, it cannot predict the future, nor does it take into account positive events in a person’s childhood that may have offset their traumatic experiences or helped them build resilience.
How Does Trauma Affect A Child?
Some stress is normal and can even be beneficial to a child’s development. However, the type of stress that occurs when a child experiences ACEs can be toxic. When the body is forced to live in fight or flight mode for a prolonged period of time or respond to an acute traumatic event without the buffer of a supportive, protective adult, children will find an alternative way to cope.
“When those ACEs happen, we try to find ways to make that pain feel less hurtful,” says O’Neill. “Children will exhibit risky or bad behaviors as a way to cope with what they’ve been through.”
O’Neill also notes that experiencing trauma at a young age completely changes the brain and stunts emotional growth. If a person has an adverse childhood experience at the age of five, parts of their brain may become stuck at that age—unable to make progress in their coping skills, emotional intelligence or ability to manage stressful events in the future.
According to a study published by a group of pediatric doctors at Harvard University, chronic exposure to stress during childhood will actually shrink the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions, creating memories and handling stress. Children with ACEs also show weaker connections from one part of their brain to the other, which means they are at a greater risk of developing mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
The effects of ACEs can extend beyond just stunting mental growth. They can also be physically harmful. Adverse childhood experiences erode the protective caps at the end of DNA strands, causing people to age faster, develop diseases more easily and die sooner.
Children exposed to traumatic events often become adults with unhealthy coping mechanisms, limited emotional capacity and a decreased ability to deal with everyday stress. Due to this, adults who have adverse childhood experiences often turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Adverse Childhood Experiences And Addiction
“Adverse childhood experiences are the root cause of many addictions,” explains O’Neill. “We often see people in our treatment facilities that use drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and not deal with the past.”
As O’Neill points out, it’s not uncommon for those with adverse childhood experiences to start using substances at earlier ages to deal with their traumatic past. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that ACEs increase the likelihood of lifetime illicit drug use, drug dependency and self-reported addiction up to four times. They also increase the chances of early alcohol, prescription drug and tobacco abuse.
When adults use drugs and alcohol as a means to cope, especially when they start at an early age, their coping mechanism can quickly spiral into an addiction. The more they use substances to numb their emotions, the more damage they’re causing to their brain and body. As substance abuse and ACEs work in tandem, it’s an incredibly difficult cycle to break.
The more adverse childhood experiences a person suffers through, the higher their chance of developing an addiction becomes. According to one study, for each additional ACE score, the number of prescription drugs used increased by 62 percent.
“In the early 1990s, when I was treating children for trauma-related issues that came from fragmented, dysfunctional homes, I had up to three years to provide care for them. Steadily, that was broken down to six months and then to three months,” explains Vinnie Strumolo, CEO at The Treehouse, Vertava Health’ Texas facility. “Fast forward 20 years later, and I’m seeing them in rehab.”
The unfortunate reality is that while addiction can happen to anyone, adults who suffered from trauma at a young age are more at risk for developing an addiction.