Understanding Early Childhood Adversity

Early childhood adversity is a motivating factor in child and adult substance abuse and challenging mental health conditions. Because of the vulnerability children have and the exposure to traumatic circumstances, the child could end up scarred for life and coping in various ways. Early childhood adversity are conditions or actions that negatively impact the wellbeing of the child, and in some cases, can result in a broken family and foster care arrangements.

There were a reported 28.6 million children of adult alcoholics in 2017, amounting to 11 million who were 18 and younger. Adult children of alcoholics were reported to endure toxic stress and develop caretaking tendencies that can create future addiction or codependent dynamics. Furthermore, children who endured early childhood adversity were reported to have a lifespan shortened by 20 years if they scored 6 or more points.

Genetic, Environmental Factors & Early Childhood Adversity

Examples of early childhood adversity include parental divorce, parental neglect, child abuse, sexual child abuse or molestation, seeing a parent abuse drugs or alcohol, having a parent go to jail, having a parent endure mental disorders, seeing parents fight or become violent with each other, and witnessing a parent who abuses substances. Young girls and boys were twice as likely to be victims of incest due to an alcoholic parent. Secondly, children who grew up with the early childhood adversity of seeing a parent battle alcoholism were twice as likely to marry someone with the same addiction.

Early Childhood Adversity, Mental Health & Toxic Stress

All of these conditions are challenging for anyone of any age to endure, and when a child is in such conditions, can scar them for years. Unfortunately, the child can re-enact patterns they witnessed in childhood and either seek out partners with addictions to care for, re-enact scenes of violence, develop mental health challenges like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or abuse harmful chemicals. Additionally, behaviors and personal challenges like low self-esteem, low self-worth, academic difficulties, and challenges with trusting people can ensue.

Another major side effect of early childhood adversity is toxic stress, which are high amounts of stress that can endanger the child’s immunity. When children are stressed due to having to caretake a parent with substance abuse, they risk irritability, poor immunity, and mental or emotional tension because of it. Anxiety can emerge as another effect, and poor coping mechanisms can increase the likelihood of toxic stress.

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Early Childhood Adversity & Addiction

Long-term effects of childhood adversity can introduce mental health disorders like anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Children who endured early childhood adversity were more likely to experience depression when scoring between 4 and 460 in the evaluation. Science Daily noted roughly 50% of people who experienced “childhood maltreatment” developed an addiction.

Furthermore, a study observed the immunity of people abusing cocaine. The people who endured childhood neglect, abuse, or other adversarial experiences revealed an “increase in expression levels” for tests surveying cocaine addiction. Three specific types of early childhood adversity—witnessing parental violence, trauma, and major events endured in childhood—contributed to a higher likelihood of substance abuse in the child’s life and throughout their later years.

The presence of toxic stress combined with other types of mental health challenges can further serve as an incentive to cope in harmful ways. Since these traits can follow children into adulthood, getting the child the needed support to fight early childhood adversity is essential. It is also important for parents of children who are abusing substances get the help needed to change their lives. Facilities can offer support groups for family members who have been impacted by substance abuse.

The earlier a child gets help or is able to access professionally facilitated support groups, the sooner they can feel understood and have an outlet to connect with others. Lastly, if a child is abusing substances due to adverse environmental and/or genetic factors, consider treatment facilities that cater to adolescents and teenagers. Several treatment options are available.

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Krystina Murray

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  • Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.

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