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09-01 Three types of childhood adverse experiences associated with substance abuse

Three types of childhood adverse experiences associated with substance abuse

Positive and negative childhood experiences have a life-long impact on children’s physical and mental well-being. On one hand, young people who experience a safe, nurturing home environment and loving relationships early in life are more likely to thrive, reach their full potential and develop the skills they need to be successful throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, not all children are so lucky. In fact, about 1 in 4 children are exposed to physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. It has also been estimated that 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence in the United States witness domestic violence each year. These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can be extremely harmful to children’s development, particularly leading to impairments in cognitive, language and social-emotional skills and abilities.

Furthermore, one of the major concerns is the relationship between ACEs and substance abuse later in life. Numerous studies have found evidence that young people exposed to different forms of child abuse and neglect is associated with subsequent:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Anxiety and other mental health problems
  • Chronic health problems (e.g., cancer, obesity, suicide, heart disease, etc.)
  • Premature death

Direct and indirect forms of childhood abuse and subsequent substance dependence

A recent study conducted by Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D., a professor and Sandra Rotman Chair in Social Work at the University of Toronto and interim director at the Institute for New Life Course & Aging, and her colleagues investigated the effect of direct (physical and sexual abuse) and indirect (witnessing parental domestic violence) exposure to violence during childhood and how strongly these variables contributed to later alcohol and drug dependence.

The researchers used data drawn from a large population-based sample of 21,554 Canadian residents ages 15 or older who participated in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health. They controlled for a number of variables, including age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, social support (i.e., marital status), smoking status, and mental/physical health concerns such as anxiety, insomnia, depression and chronic pain.

Of the sample, 2.9 percent were classified as drug dependent and 3.2 percent were determined to be alcohol dependent at some point in their lives. The researchers found a significant association between all of the ACEs (i.e., physical and sexual abuse and witnessing parental domestic violence) and alcohol and drug dependence in adulthood. The main findings of this study were that:

  • 1 in 5 adults with drug dependence had been exposed to sexual abuse
  • 1 in 6 adults with alcohol dependence had been exposed to sexual abuse
  • More than half of all adults with alcohol or drug dependence experienced physical abuse
  • Chronic (10 times or more) parental domestic violence exposure had a 50 percent higher odds for alcohol or drug dependence

Fuller-Thomson and colleagues found the greatest odds of developing substance dependence were found for direct physical and sexual abuse. Interestingly, children with chronic parental domestic violence exposure had significantly higher odds for developing alcohol or drug dependence later in life compared to those who had not been exposed to parental domestic violence.

Addressing the needs of children and families

Due to the strong association between direct and indirect forms of abuse during childhood and later substance dependence, it is vital to provide children and their families with interventions and other tools to help mitigate these consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that some of the interventions that can be used to address the needs of children and their families, including:

  • Voluntary home visiting programs
  • Providing social support for parents and caregivers
  • Prevention of intimate partner violence
  • Parent support programs for teens
  • Teen pregnancy prevention programs
  • Treatment for mental illness and substance abuse
  • Income support for families
  • High-quality child care

Children and adolescents’ early experiences and environments in life play a crucial role in their development of mental health and substance use problems later in life. Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego provides adolescents from 12 to 17 with specialized behavioral health treatment services for eating disorders, mental illness, substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders. For more information about the treatment programs at our Rancho San Diego facility, please contact our 24/7 helpline for further assistance.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for Sovereign Health. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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