Dr. Brent Potter
The Addiction Campuses Editorial Team (2018) point out that no one leaves childhood unscathed. At some point, we were all faced with events in our past that left us scarred, scared, or both. Numerous 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.
Early events of childhood stress and trauma serve as the foundations of later addiction and an array of other emotional and physical ailments.
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 distressing events the higher the likelihood that they will experience one of these unfortunate outcomes.
Adverse childhood experiences can be single, acute events, or repeated trauma sustained over time. These events occur at 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
- Incarceration of a 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.
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 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 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 is 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, Addiction Campuses’ 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. While these things are quite true, there is a message of hope.
What is biblical hope?
A hope that doesn’t bring shame.
Romans 5:5, Psalm 25:3: Because of God’s love, we have a hope that will never put us to shame. The Holy Spirit has been given to secure this hope in our hearts. When we hope in God it will not be embarrassing. God will never let us down.
A hope that leads to praise.
Psalm 42:5; Psalm 42:11: When we are downcast, hoping in God can cause us to praise God, even while suffering. In the moment it might be tough (or even impossible) to praise God. If we hold on to the hope of God, we will one day sing again.
A hope that is living.
I Peter 1:3: Our hope is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of His death and resurrection, we have a hope that is alive. Our hope is not in something invisible or a hope that wishes something will come true. Our hope is already true: Jesus is alive today!
A hope-filled with joy and peace.
Romans 15:13: Our hope is not one that will leave us empty. Our hope will bring joy and peace to our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God lives inside of us and He reminds us of the joy and peace we have in Christ – daily!
Jesus is the answer to our hope.
In Romans, Paul answers the question: What do we hope in? Jesus Christ is the answer to our hope. Hope will never disappoint. People will fail us. Community, companies, and even circumstances will all fall short to meet the longing in our hearts. Only Jesus is enough to fill our hearts. Even our own hearts will fail us, but Jesus never will!Four years ago, my husband and I brought home our adoptive daughter from China. We had been away from our other children for two weeks and were worn from travel. I wept as I hugged my sweet children. We call that day family day.
That day four years ago I wore a shirt that said “faithful.” With all my heart, I wanted God to be faithful. At the moment, I didn’t feel like He was faithful. Our future with our adoptive daughter was unknown. She was scared, withdrawn, sick, and malnourished. A long path of medical unknowns, therapy, and no answer waited for us.
The hope I held onto (each day) was the fact that I knew God to be faithful. The choice to believe was enough fuel to have hope each day. One day at a time I choose hope. You can choose hope, too.
The hope we have is not based on circumstances, people, or even our own choices – hope can be found in Christ alone. What a comfort this is to our lonely and hurting hearts! God is faithful and will not disappoint.
Here are three ways to choose hope today:
1. Go outside.
Simply step out of your house or workplace and breathe in the air. You are alive and giving thanks for this simple thing will spark hope in your heart! The fresh air will do amazing things physically and emotionally for you.
2. Say a prayer for someone else.
You might know someone else who is suffering – can you pray for them? Looking outside ourselves allows hope to grow in our hearts. Send a text message or email or write a note and stick it in the mail to remind that person to have hope.
3. Remember God is still working your heart.
You have all you need in Christ. Rest and be secure in this truth. Reading God’s word, praying, and serving others will lift our eyes away from our heartache and onto God’s purpose for our life. Don’t give way to the darkness – God is still working on you!
Quick Reference Bible Verses About Hope
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. – Psalm 25:5
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord. – Psalm 31:24
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love. – Psalm 33:18
Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. – Psalm 62:5
But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint. – Isaiah 40:31
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. – Romans 12:12
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people. – Ephesians 1:18
The faith and love that spring from the hope stirred up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel. – Colossians 1:5
So that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:7
Addiction Campuses Editorial Team (2018). Can adverse childhood experiences cause addiction? Available online: https://www.addictioncampuses.com/blog/childhood-experiences-cause-addiction/
Frazer, S. (2019. What does the Bible say about hope? Available online: https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/Bible-study/what-does-the-Bible-say-about-hope.html
“Drowning”, Courtesy of Nikko Macaspac, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pondering”, Courtesy of Ratiu Bia, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “There is Always Hope”, Courtesy of Ron Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Thinking”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License