Why is Childhood Trauma Linked to Addiction and Mental Illness?
Even those of us who claim happy childhoods can likely come up with instances of trauma, from being injured in a sporting accident to being scolded or spanked for stealing at a young age, just for example. These instances of trauma have an impact on us and often, play a role in how we approach the world.
However, there are instances of childhood trauma that are far more impactful for some, especially when they center on abuse. If children witness the abuse of parents or siblings, or they are abused themselves (physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally, etc.), it can have a lasting impact, leading to issues like addiction and mental illness (depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more), along with difficulties processing emotions, developing harmful attachment styles in relationships, and generally living as a functional adult.
Why does this occur? Why does childhood trauma appear to make some people resilient while others turn to substance abuse or suffer mental illness as a result? More importantly, what can you do to address childhood trauma, improve mental health, and live a healthier and more fulfilling adult life?
Intention vs. Impact in Parenting
You’ve probably heard the saying “children don’t come with a manual”. While it’s true that every child has their own personality, and parents often struggle to find the best ways to raise their children with love and understanding, there is a wealth of literature regarding childhood development and fostering healthy familial relationships, and family and individual therapy are always options, as well. In other words, there are plenty of guides available to help parents learn how to raise their kids to be capable and well-adjusted adults.
That said, many parents think they’re doing a fine job because they act with the best intentions. The unfortunate truth is that good intentions don’t always lead to good results, and even well-intentioned parents can make mistakes that result in childhood trauma.
A single parent, for example, might think children are better off being raised in a household with two parents. With the best of intentions, they may rush into a relationship, inviting a new partner into the home, not realizing they’ve introduced a predator that ultimately victimized children.
A parent worried about childhood obesity may withhold certain foods, force diets, or harass a child about eating habits with the intention of “helping” the child learn healthy eating habits, but this could lead to issues like eating disorders or body dysmorphia. No parent is perfect, and even those who think they’re doing the best things for their children could unintentionally cause childhood trauma. With the right help, however, adults can learn to overcome the trauma of childhood and begin to address issues like addiction and mental illness that have resulted.
Unintentional Family Roles Can Cause Minor Traumas
Codependency is common in families with members who suffer from mental illness and/or addiction disorders. It has to do with how family members react to the “abnormal” situation. The result is often a family that does not function in a healthy way, either as individuals or as a group. The trauma bond family members share becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who do not receive professional help.
In high-stress or traumatic situations, children may either naturally take on certain roles, or more likely, be forced into them. One child may take on the role of a hero, while another may be a mascot or clown. Another might become a caretaker or enabler. There may be a scapegoat, while some children could become lost in the shuffle.
When children take on these roles, it can have a marked impact on the adults they become. This is especially prevalent in households where one or both parents suffer from addiction or mental illness.
When children are traumatized and shaped by these circumstances early in life, it can actually “compromise their neural structure and function”, according to a report on substance abuse published by NCBI. This, in turn, makes children susceptible to substance abuse themselves, as well as mental illness later in life (including depression, PTSD, and even schizophrenia or bipolar disorder).
These need not be insurmountable hurdles, though. With individual and family of origin therapy, children, teens, and adults subjected to childhood trauma may begin to recover, understand the forces driving them to behave in unhealthy ways, and become functional adults.
Living in Survival Mode Following Childhood Trauma
An average child may suffer occasional stress, but a stable and loving household can go a long way toward helping children feel secure and grow into healthy and well-adjusted adults. In a household where trauma is significant and ongoing, children are pushed into survival mode, and they may become so familiar and comfortable with this state that they carry it into adulthood.
For example, children may learn to be self-sufficient in a household where they cannot rely on an absent parent or they fear angering a violent parent. While self-sufficiency is generally a good thing, children in survival mode may grow into adults who are unable or unwilling to accept help, even when they need it, and who struggle to connect with others or form meaningful relationships. Again, this is an instance where family-of-origin therapy can be helpful, as can individual therapy.
Understanding the Impact of a Trauma Bond
Repeated cycles of abuse in relationships can lead to the formation of trauma bonds, by which alternately loving and abusive behaviors result in confused feelings and a strong sense that you are tied to your abuser. This can be especially difficult to recognize and address in parent/child relationships involving childhood trauma, because children, even adult children, often experience strong emotional bonds with parents.
In many cases, victims of abuse suffer negative and confused feelings they don’t necessarily understand, and these can be exacerbated by continuing an unhealthy relationship with a parent or parents as an adult. This, in turn, can lead to coping behaviors like substance abuse, as well as result in mental illness.
Recovery begins with understanding the source of negative emotions and behaviors, through addiction recovery treatment, if necessary, and certainly through therapy. With options for individual, group, family, behavioral, and experiential therapy, for example, those who have suffered childhood trauma have the best opportunity to adopt healthier behaviors and thought patterns.
Unlearning Harmful Behaviors through Group and Individual Therapy
It’s not unusual for survivors of childhood trauma to suffer from anger, anxiety, depression, and other negative feelings they don’t necessarily understand. Even those who seem outwardly strong, confident, and successful may struggle with harmful attachment styles in relationships, or an inability to carry on close relationships at all. Coping mechanisms may include substance abuse that worsens over time.
With appropriate addiction treatment and/or mental health services, childhood trauma survivors have the best chance to address the root causes of the issues plaguing them and impacting their adult lives. Trauma therapy, in particular (including behavioral and experiential therapy, among other modalities), aims to understand the underlying trauma, discover dysfunctional patterns, recognize harmful thoughts and behaviors, and learn to cope and take personal responsibility, paving the way for healthier thoughts, behaviors, and approaches to life and relationships.
Learning more about addiction and mental illness and seeking help can immeasurably improve the lives of those who have suffered childhood trauma. Contact the qualified professionals at All Points North Lodge today at 866-525-9107, online, or via live chat to discuss available treatment options.
*We cannot understate the importance of working with a doctor and therapist as you recover. This content is intended as medical advice. Interested in therapy or treatment? Call us today or chat below with a team member for more information.
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