What happens during our formative years of life and into young adulthood can have a lasting and profound effect on us — negatively and positively. When someone experiences childhood trauma such as neglect, abuse, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, life-threatening accidents or illnesses, or community or school violence, it can have a serious, negative impact on their emotional, mental, or physical health.

Impacts of Childhood Trauma

Many survivors of childhood trauma experience anxiety, guilt, shame, and grief. Childhood trauma has been linked with higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm, and drug and alcohol abuse. So, when I’ve been asked if childhood trauma can affect us in the long term, my simple answer is, “Yes, and then some.”

Can Trauma be Passed Down to Our Children?

We’ve long known that traumatic events leave scars — seen or unseen. Research has discovered that childhood trauma can actually impact one’s DNA, which means the trauma could impact a person’s child. Passing trauma on to future generations is called Intergenerational Trauma. It’s a theory that trauma can be inherited due to changes in a person’s DNA after suffering childhood trauma.[1] The changes alter how the gene functions, which is known as epigenetic change or epigenetics.

The Greek prefix epi- (meaning over, outside of, around) implies features that are on top of or in addition to our DNA. Think of our DNA as the roadmap of our development; it guides how we grow and develop. Epigenetics shows how environmental influences affect the expression of genes. During development, the DNA that makes up our genes accumulates chemical marks that determine how much or little a gene is expressed.

These chemical marks are known as epigenomes. The experiences that children have can rearrange those chemical marks. Have you ever wondered how genetically identical twins can display different skills, behaviors, and even health? Genes we inherit from our parents guide development. The experiences we have during development can change if and how genes release the information that they carry. Genes are affected by positive and negative experiences, such as supportive relationships or toxic stress. These changes leave a unique epigenetic signature on the gene, and they can be temporary or permanent and affect how easily the genes are switched on or off.

So why the biology lesson? Because this process has a practical impact on our understanding of trauma, especially on children. It also demonstrates how changes that occur to us impact our children and their development. Early work in this field came from studying the Dutch famine during World War II and Holocaust survivors.

This is not a history lesson, so I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that it provides evidence on a biological level that we often see demonstrated in our daily lives. A severely traumatized mother will often be overprotective of her child. In turn, the child may become scared of everything and everyone. This could lead to neuronal changes in the brain. Perhaps her child then inherits these changes. So now that child is genetically prone to anxiety, which stemmed from a traumatic event that occurred to the mother.

Childhood Trauma From a Psychological Perspective

Adverse Life Experiences (ACEs) have been studied for over 20 years and provide ample evidence of how early trauma can cause an increased chance of drug use, health problems, legal issues, and more. While kids are resilient, they need our love and protection in their formative years even more than we realize. The emotional scars that can occur in childhood, though unseen, can cut to the soul. 

The impact that ACEs have, both mentally and physically, is broad and far-reaching. Individuals exposed to multiple types of childhood trauma show an increased risk of early mortality, showing decreased lifespan by up to 20 years. Issues of increased risk of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal symptoms, poor dental health, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, relate predominantly to physical abuse.

Psychologically, childhood trauma is regarded as one of the major risk factors for mental health issues. Most significantly, childhood trauma has been linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, issues such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, disruptive behavior, substance abuse, and eating disorders have been shown to result from traumatic events as well. 

Related: How to Cope With Substance Use Disorders

Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse

As mentioned, childhood trauma is often associated with substance abuse and addiction. Research shows that childhood trauma produces long-lasting impairments in behavioral, cognitive, and social functioning.[2] Prolonged or persistent trauma puts a person in a constant state of stress, which dysregulates the stress system, and creates an inability to control or regulate emotional responses.[3], [4] The dysregulation can lead to negative effects including disruption of the regulation of oxytocin (a hormone that promotes positive feelings) and serotonin (plays a key role in mood).4

Seeing that a major reason people turn to drugs and alcohol is their psychological effects, which change the way people feel by producing pleasure. Those with a history of trauma may be more vulnerable to addiction as a way to regulate their mood.4 According to one study, “Childhood abuse is closely related to marijuana use. Individuals with ACE scores greater than five are seven to 10 times more likely to report illicit drug addiction compared to those without ACEs and are four to 12 times more likely to become drug abusers.”[5] 

Understanding the impact that childhood trauma can have in relation to addiction helps in creating the best path to recovery.

Related: What is Addiction and How Can it be Treated?

Overcoming Childhood Trauma

It is important to remember the extent of damage any type of trauma inflicts depends on many variables, mainly a child's level of resilience. Other factors, such as genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors, play a major role in how detrimental trauma is to a child. Treatment for these events and other protective factors can greatly reduce the impact and help speed up the healing process dramatically.

Healthy lifestyles are a natural protection from the negative effects of trauma. Things like having a healthy family, a good diet, and exercising also benefit those epigenomes mentioned earlier. They can “flip the switch” on negative things that would be expressed making a child more resilient. Some other protective factors that can reduce the impact of trauma and improve psychological well-being are positive social support, supportive caregivers, education, being highly engaged with your child, having a stable household, and of course, counseling.

If you or a loved one has experienced childhood trauma and are now suffering from addiction or substance use disorders, we’re here for you at Lake Point Wellness and Recovery. Give us a call at 1-833-4HANDUP to learn more.

Tim Hughes, MS, LPE-I, AADC 


[1] https://www.verywellhealth.com/intergenerational-trauma-5191638

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2012133

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-addiction/202109/why-trauma-can-lead-to-addiction

[4] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-dysregulation

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9058108/

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