Teen Drug Use Linked to Childhood Trauma, Abuse
A recent study from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found a link between trauma experienced during childhood and drug use during adolescence. Specifically, data from a sample of 10,000 teens across the country showed that being exposed to domestic violence and abuse during childhood increased the likelihood that the child would later use drugs, independent of any mental health issues.
The study was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and is the first of its kind. While this does not mean that a child who experienced trauma or abuse before the age of 11 will automatically experiment with drugs during the teen years, this fact can help parents and caregivers as well as teachers and physicians to remain alert to potential signs of drug use.
It is not just physical or sexual abuse – either being the victim of such trauma or witnessing it happen to someone else – that may contribute to an increased risk of teen drug abuse. According to the study, a number of different traumatic events may be linked to higher likelihood of use of cocaine, marijuana, prescription drugs (without a prescription), and other substances.
Hannah Carliner is a postdoctoral fellow and one of the lead researchers on the study. She said: "Abuse and domestic violence were particularly harmful to children, increasing the chances of all types of drug use in the adolescent years. We also found that trauma such as car accidents, natural disasters, and major illness in childhood increased the chances that teens would use marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs."
Parental Drug Abuse as Trauma
Additionally, the drug use and abuse of a parent can add to the likelihood that a child who experienced a childhood trauma will ultimately use marijuana and other substances during the teen years, according to the study.
Associate Professor Silvia S. Martins, MD, PhD, is another lead author of the study. She says: "Parent substance misuse may increase access to drugs in the home, indicate a biological predisposition towards drug use, serve as a model for coping with stress, or indicate lack of parental involvement or neglect. Future research should identify which mechanisms may increase this risk in order to target interventions."
Though the goal is to raise a child free from exposure to abuse and trauma, it is impossible to keep them in a bubble and guarantee a stress-free childhood. However, parents and caregivers, as well as teachers and family doctors, can all work together to identify signs of drug use in children with known histories of trauma – the earlier, the better. The key is to maintain open communication, be aware of signs of drug use, notice any changes in personality and behavior, and immediately act if there is suspicion that the child is beginning to experiment with drugs and alcohol. No use of these substances is safe, and the sooner that a young person who is drinking or getting high gets back on the sober track, the less likely it is that a lifelong substance use disorder will develop.