Addiction Treatment for Survivors of Child Abuse

Approximately two-thirds of those who enter treatment for addiction have experienced abuse in childhood.  Child abuse may be physical, emotional, sexual, or a combination of any of these. While the severity of abuse varies, the negative emotional and mental consequences of any amount of child abuse usually persist into adulthood.  Survivors of child abuse are far more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorder. Substance abuse may begin in childhood as a coping mechanism or develop later in life as a result of unaddressed trauma. There has been an effort in recent years to understand the various factors that may contribute to the development of addiction in victims of child abuse, and improve treatment for those struggling with childhood trauma and substance abuse.  

PTSD as a Result of Child Abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition commonly associated with war veterans, is a mental illness that develops as a result of enduring a painful and traumatic incident, or series of incidents.  PTSD often results in flashbacks that may lead to complete avoidance of any and all reminders of the event. In adults, PTSD can cause a variety of mental health problems including sleep issues, panic attacks, and depression.  Untreated PTSD can get in the way of living a normal life, making it difficult to work, have relationships, and interact socially. PTSD is often diagnosed in adult survivors of child abuse, especially in women. For women who experienced both physical and sexual abuse, the likelihood of PTSD is doubled.  Not every child abuse survivor will go on to develop PTSD, and the interaction of determining variables is complex, but researchers have begun to identify factors that may influence the potential for PTSD.

PTSD may be more likely to occur in those that experience extremely severe abuse as children, and lack love and support from others outside of their abuser.  Experts also theorize that lingering trauma may depend on how a child is related to their abuser, or at what age they experience the abuse. Additionally, the development of PTSD may depend on whether there was outside intervention when the abuse occurred.  Physical child abuse often goes unaddressed by witnesses, as well as the criminal justice system, simply because it can be hard to define. What may count as abuse to one family may be considered discipline by another.  

Many psychologists would define abuse as experiencing events that result in overwhelming stress to the child.  Stress from abuse is especially detrimental to children due to their inability to mentally and emotionally process what is happening to them.  Children who are abused often feel they deserve to be mistreated or they are somehow at fault, and this feeling can persist into adulthood despite logic telling them otherwise. Even in the least severe abuse scenarios, PTSD may still occur later in life.  


By the time a survivor of child abuse becomes an adult, they will likely have developed a set of coping mechanisms to manage their trauma.  These attempts to cope are often unhealthy and further harm the survivor. Strategies may involve suppressing negative emotions such as sadness and rage and lead to the onset of mental illnesses.  Resisting the experience of painful emotions can cause chronic anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and an inability to support healthy relationships. Many people who suffer from these mental health struggles turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their symptoms.  Unfortunately, substances only work as a temporary fix for emotional anguish. Drugs and alcohol may numb depression, anger, and anxiety for a few hours, but over time these psychological issues will only worsen as a result of substance abuse. Additionally, self-medicating often leads to addiction, adding to the list of hardships already being faced by victims of child abuse.

Treatment Considerations

While mental illness is extremely common in those that seek treatment for substance abuse, survivors of child abuse present with unique obstacles.  Child abuse survivors tend to be guarded and untrusting, and may not immediately disclose their experiences in counseling sessions due to shame or an inability to open up to strangers.  If a patient has never previously discussed their abuse, talking about it for the first time can be healing on its own. For most survivors of abuse, however, true progress will require a great deal of therapy and a thorough assessment of co-occurring disorders.  For those struggling with addiction, it is important to investigate the underlying reasons for substance abuse. Survivors of abuse who have made a habit of blaming themselves for their circumstances may prevent their own recovery by beating themselves up for their addiction.  By understanding that addiction is a common response to emotional trauma, these individuals can begin to forgive themselves and build healthier coping strategies.  

Anyone living with addiction and a history of child abuse should seek treatment from professionals equipped to provide trauma-informed care and a dual diagnosis.  A fulfilling life after abuse and addiction is possible, and with the right resources, those that experienced tragedy in their youth can finally take control of their own happiness. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, now is the time to reach out for help.  At Burning Tree, you will find knowledgeable and compassionate professionals that structure treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders.  Through accountability and commitment to the 12 Steps, each client will develop the tools to create a sober lifestyle and find lasting recovery. We specialize in the treatment of chronic relapsers, and believe with the right support you can experience true and permanent healing.  For more information, call us now at 866-287-2877  


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