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Childhood Adversity: A Root Cause of Addiction

By March 29, 2022Recovery

Understanding the Root Cause of Addiction from Childhood

As children grow up and go through different stages, they may also develop an addiction due to difficult events like peer pressure, sexual abuse, or trauma from natural disasters. These adverse events can put so much stress on a child or teen that they begin using substances as a way to cope with these feelings because they do not know how else to deal with their situation. Let’s discuss childhood adversity and why it is one of the most significant factors in developing an addiction.

We’ll be examining the below points:

Early developmental trauma and exposure to stressors produce numerous neurobiological abnormalities including changes in neural circuit function which may manifest in substance abuse or dependence. (Mate, Journal of Restorative Medicine 2012).

The stress mechanism is the result of an attempt to self-soothe one’s system. When the brain learns that this stress mechanism works as a self-soothing technique, it marks it as a success. The brain is then ready to use these same neural pathways for the next time we are under stress.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and How They Affect You

If a child grows up in a stress-induced environment, their fight-or-flight response (autonomic nervous system) is conditioned to be easily activated due to their prior traumatic experiences. Abandonment, neglect, or abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual) can alter physical stress mechanisms and the child often becomes more reactive to stress throughout their life. (Mate, Journal of Restorative Medicine 2012). Traumatic experiences that occur early in life within attachment relationships often referred to as “interpersonal trauma”, are known as a significant predictor of Substance Use Disorders in later life (Meulewaeter, 2019).

There are 10 types of experiences in a person’s life, under the age of 18, that can determine the likelihood of risks to one’s mental health in their adult life. This was determined by the 1998 study done by Co-Principal Investigators Robert Anda, MD, and Vince Felitti, MD for the CDC and Kaiser Premante. They looked at 10 questions about childhood household experiences and how they are linked with adult health. The score of the questions gives insight into what needs to be processed for the individual, measuring the intensity level of the trauma needing to be worked on.

Does Childhood Adversity Affect You?

Answering a set of 10 questions can give you immediate insight into what situations were traumatic and may currently still be affecting you. It is common for people to disassociate or have cognitive distortions from childhood experiences if they were traumatic.

This test gave me great insight and guidance into what I needed to heal when it comes to my childhood. Find out if you have childhood experiences that are still affecting you. Five questions are related to the individual’s personal experiences (sexual abuse, neglect) and the other five are related to family member’s experiences (i.e. parent in prison, alcoholic father).

Take the Ace Test

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  7. Was your mother or stepmother:
    Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?                       No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  10. Did a household member go to prison?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __

Childhood experiences that happen earlier in childhood are strong precursors in damaging the child’s ability to cope with negative or disruptive emotions which creates a higher risk for addiction. (Khoury, 2010). Childhood experiences are so prominently linked to how we react and cope in our adult life. It is so important in teaching children healthy ways to cope and to feel through their emotions. Instead of focusing on immediate gratification or bypassing the situation. With the internet being so new and easily accessible, what about coping with our technology?

What is a Behavioral Addiction

Behavior addiction is diagnosed if an individual has a compulsion to participate in these behaviors but experiences negative consequences as the result and still can’t bring themselves to stop (Li, 2020).

New Technology brings New Addictions

It is no secret that we are all known to be “glued to our phones”. But what does this really mean for us all as we continue feeding into the behavior cycle of social media and apps right in the palm of our hands?

Greater social media use, specifically night-time social media use, is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression (O’Brien, 2011).

These types of behavioral addictions are closely related to substance abuse and addiction. With a substance or without, these behavioral cycles have much in common. A few to name are immediate gratification and procrastinating the necessary.

Escaping Reality to Cope

We know we will feel good at the moment, but later comes the inevitable stress we were trying to avoid. Similar behavioral addictions using technology are associated with a number of mental health issues. For example, more than 2 hours a day of screen time is found to be associated with emotional and behavioral problems in 5-year- old girls (O’Brien, 2011).

A recent 2020 study determined that adversity in childhood contributes to mobile phone addiction (Li, 2020). Technology is being used as a coping mechanism as a way to escape one’s reality. As technology grows at an exponential rate, children are being exposed to using these devices more and more each day.

The ACE test is a way to acknowledge individual childhood trauma. The test can help examine behavioral addiction and guide a person to understanding why they may participate in a particular behavior as an adult. The test consists of a series of 10 questions to lead the test taker through a journey of awareness. Professional help is strongly advised when looking to begin this healing process.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime: This is an excellent TedMed Talk by Nadine Burke Harris about how childhood trauma affects the brain-body connection throughout an individual’s lifetime.

Start Healing from Childhood Adverse Experiences

Inner child work is a great way to begin healing. An awesome book that I am diving into is How to Do the Work by Dr. Nicole Lepera. A quote from her book I love, “Healing is an unlearning of patterns.”

A few examples of inner child work through self-healing are:

  • Validating your past self and your experience
  • Set boundaries that make you feel safe and secure in those relationships
  • Allow yourself to feel through your emotions, especially paying attention to those resurfacing from childhood.
  • Remind yourself that you are moving in the right direction
  • Affirm you are addressing what needs to be addressed.
  • Honor your past child self and the experience
  • Have gratitude for the awareness and willingness you have now
  • If you have any expectations, let go of them.


The way our childhood affects us speaks volumes to how we behave and interact in our adult life today. Understanding the root of our troubles through ways like the ACE test is where we can start coming up with a plan for ourselves to heal.

Ensure you have the right tools and spiritual approach for retraining your brain. You have the power to transform your life and habits significantly. Satori Way is here to set the stage with what is right for you. Join us for a free 5-day course here!


  • About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study |Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC. (2021). Retrieved 13 July 2021, from
  • Alavi SS, Ferdosi M, Jannatifard F, Eslami M, Alaghemandan H, Setare M. Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. Int J Prev Med. 2012;3(4):290-294.

  • Lamya Khoury, Yilang L Tang, Bekh Bradley, Joe F Cubells, Kerry J Ressler Depress Anxiety. 2010 Dec; 27(12): 1077–1086. doi: 10.1002/da.20751

  • Maté, MD Journal Compilation 2012, AARM DOI 10.14200/jrm.2012.1.1005.

  • Mothering, Substance Use Disorders and Intergenerational Trauma Transmission: An Attachment-Based Perspective. Florien Meulewaeter, Sarah S. W. De Pauw, Wouter Vanderplasschen. Front Psychiatry. 2019; 10: 728. Published online 2019 Oct 18. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00728
  • O’Brien Charles. (2011) Addiction and dependence in DSM-V. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 106(5), 866-867.
  • Wenfu Li, Xueting Zhang, Minghui Chu, Gongying Li Front Psychol. 2020; 11: 834. Published online 2020 May 13. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00834