It’s almost become common knowledge that children who experience neglect or abuse are more likely to struggle with addictions. But somehow, this widespread knowledge does not always translate into sympathy for those who struggle with addictions, particularly when that person is ourself.
As a society we talk about people needing to take responsibility for their behaviours and not use history as an “excuse” for our choices. As a result, those who struggle with keeping healthy limits on things like alcohol consumption may minimize the role of our childhood experiences on these struggles and, if we do acknowledge the links, may assume that there is nothing one can do about one’s history and so do not attempt to address this history in any way.
I believe that it is important to acknowledge the ways our childhood experiences may have influenced our current behaviours so we can see what types of wounds we have been attempting to heal or at least protect us from, with alcohol. Once we can see those things we can actually find healing for them. This will enable us to better address behaviour that is no longer necessary for our survival.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that influence adult drinking consumption behaviours
In the book “Nurturing Resilience- helping clientsmove forward from Developmental Trauma” Authors Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell speak about the Adversive Childhood Events or ACE research project which examines the top ten most common adverse childhood experiences.
This study showed that people who scored 4 or more on the ACE questionnaire were seven times as likely to become addicted to alcohol, and twice all likely to smoke. The higher the score the more likely of experiencing mental health and physical health issues.
See ACEs Connection to see the ACE questionnaire, and for more information about this study and its results.
Here are some of the items on the ACE list:
Having parents who abused alcohol
Having parents who abused alcohol during our childhood can provide the lesson that “alcohol is a solution to stress,” “the way to have fun,” and “the best way to connect with others” and that excessive drinking is “what adults do.”
Once we’ve had these lessons, even the stress caused by having parents who abused alcohol might result in us going to alcohol in order to relieve that stress.
Neglect- physical & emotional
Having parents who abused alcohol may result in a parent not being ‘present’ for us when we needed them, resulting in neglect. Neglect can, of course happen whether a parents abused alcohol, or not and may come in the form of not being able to depend on consistent meals, or clean clothes or being given appropriate medical care when needed. It can also be a parent not attend to a child’s emotional needs, either because they are not present physically or psychologically (they’re drunk or passed out) or giving inappropriate emotional responses to a child. All of these types of neglect and can leave children without the experience of being at peace, and secure. In this case a child may not develop the capacity to soothe themselves emotionally and physically, as emotions are a combination of thoughts and physical sensations. This may present itself as anxiety and even as an anxiety or panic disorder in children, teens or adults. Alcohol may provide the internal soothing that we are unable to provide ourselves.
Emotional neglect might also result in a child ‘shutting’ down, a sort of depression, where a child gives up hope that his or her needs will be met and so they stop paying attention to their emotional needs and may try to block out the sensation of needing love and attention with alcohol or other substances.
Abuse – emotional (verbal & psychological), physical & sexual
Abuse of any kind, particularly if it is repetitive, may result in a child being unable to soothe themselves or ‘shutting down’ and sometimes both. This can carry on into adulthood and may present as depression or anxiety.
Dr. Gabor Matte speaks about this in his book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” noting that he can often tell by the type of substance a person is using, whether their internal system is seeking calming or stimulation which may point to their internal response to trauma or abuse.
For more on abuse, see The 3 Types of Non Physical Abuse
- abandonment or loss of a biological parent through divorce, being premature, death, or other reason;
- witnessing domestic violence,
- living with a person who had a mental illness or attempted suicide, or
- having a household member go to prison.
There are many other experiences that would be equal to these 10 in intensity and effect, but the study simply focused on the most common.
Healing from Your Childhood
The good news is that you can find healing from your childhood experiences. For some, talk therapy with a counsellor they trust will bring significant healing. Others may need to address both childhood issues and current behaviours with combination of therapy and addiction recovery supports or programs. The symptoms that come as a result of trauma and adverse experiences (including PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression and addictions) can also be treated with Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) see Processing Memories with EMDR. Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) can help with learning to regulate emotions and ‘read’ interpersonal relationships more accurately.
For more on counselling, check out:
For more on addictions,check out:
For more on trauma, check out: