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 > Trauma  > Trauma Treatment: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Substance Experimentation
how to help a child with trauma

Trauma Treatment: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Substance Experimentation

Childhood memories are a funny thing. We may not remember that funny, or slightly embarrassing story our parents love to tell at family gatherings, but we can vividly recall all the lyrics of our favorite song at the time. For some people, their childhood memories are a cherished thing to come back to, but for young adults who have experienced trauma, memories that pop up can be triggering or terrifying. Although we might not remember all of the specific details from childhood, the brain stores information away that can impact us positively or negatively into adulthood. For children who have experienced one or more adverse life events during their childhood, these experiences are carried over as trauma in adolescents and adults and are often the focus of trauma treatment.

How childhood experiences can follow you into adulthood

Traumatic events in childhood can take many different forms from ongoing trauma like physical and sexual abuse to one-time events such as car accidents, natural disasters, or medical emergencies. Trauma can also form from any ongoing stress a child experiences such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or being bullied. 

For children who experience these traumas, many can develop PTSD where they re-experience the trauma in their minds. Children who develop PTSD can carry it into adulthood and may also have problems with anger and aggression, anxiety, depression, difficulty trusting others, fear, isolation, poor self-esteem, and self-destructive behavior. Teens who have experienced trauma as children may also experience flashbacks where they relive the traumatic episode. This could present through nightmares or disturbing mental images. 

In addition to the immediate negative consequences, trauma can bring to children, there are also many negative long-term physical health impacts. Trauma can also have an effect on the amygdala, the portion of the brain that triggers the “fight or flight” response. Because the brain has difficulty differentiation between perceived threat, mental distress, or an actual physical threat, the symptoms of PTSD can leave people stuck in that fight or flight response. Those who have experienced childhood trauma are also at an increased risk for asthma, coronary heart disease, depression, diabetes, and stroke. They are also more likely to develop attachment disorders as adults, which can hinder them from developing friendships or romantic relationships. 

Because adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) can have such a lasting mental, physical, and emotional impact, trauma-informed treatment focuses on increasing awareness around ACE’s, increasing family support and education, and developing nurturing and resilient communities.

Substance experimentation and abuse linked to trauma as a form of coping

Research has shown that there is a strong link between children who have gone through traumatic experiences and substance use and abuse in adolescents. In a survey of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients reported a history of traumatic experiences.

Experimenting with drugs acts as a coping mechanism for adolescents as they try to escape the PTSD they are experiencing. Teens who have experienced trauma and have PTSD are also experiencing strong, unwanted emotions and memories. Young adults are often not equipped to process the symptoms that occur with PTSD, and as a result, they turn to substances like drugs or alcohol for a numbing effect. In the short term, using substances can help teens get rid of the hopelessness, anxiety, and negative thoughts they are experiencing, but in the long term, it can worsen the symptoms of PTSD and create abuse or dependence. Those difficult feelings are temporarily numbed, but when the substances wear off, teens are right back where they started. Without the proper tools for treatment, they can begin to develop a negative loop with substance abuse where they are constantly chasing that brief reprieve from their symptoms or memories. 

There is also evidence that teens who are already abusing substances may be less able to cope with a traumatic event as a result of the functional impairments associated with problematic use. In one study, investigators found that even after controlling for exposure to trauma, adolescents with substance abuse disorders were two times more likely to develop PTSD following trauma than were their non-abusing peers.

Because the risk of developing a substance abuse problem is so high among those who have experienced trauma, it’s important to seek trauma treatment as soon as possible to reduce the risk of developing additional disorders.

Treatment options for trauma

One of the main challenges for dealing with trauma and substance abuse in teens is identifying the issue. Many teens are secretive during adolescence and parents may just assume that any new mood swings are just a part of being a teen. Young adults may not have the words to describe what is happening to them. They may show signs of anger or sadness, but without identifying the underlying issues, parents may not be addressing the true problem. Parents may think that their teen is struggling with depression or behavioral issues. Experiencing trauma can also come with feelings of guilt or shame for young adults. They may believe that whatever has happened to them is their fault or that people judge them if they talk about their experiences. These feelings of shame and guilt are strong motivators for teens to stay silent about their struggles.

One thing you can do to help your teen if you believe they are experiencing issues related to trauma and substance abuse is to give them the tools they need to talk about their struggles. Work to keep open communication where your teen can talk about their feelings without any fear of judgment. Remind them that you do not expect them to feel any certain way, and that sharing thoughts and feelings together as a family is helpful to every family member, even if the conversations are painful. It is also important to be patient with your teen. Your teenager may seem to not want your support. They may turn to friends instead, at least in the short term. Keep the lines of communication open. Let your teenager know you are always ready and available to talk. Your teenager may become rebellious. This may reflect a need to assert some control over their lives. Whatever their behaviors, keep in mind that processing trauma and the fall out of substance experimentation will take time and healing does not always happen in a linear fashion. There will be good days and there will be bad days as your teen continues to learn how to deal with their trauma. But the good news is that there are people and programs who can help. 

Dealing with trauma and PTSD is not something teens can work through by themselves. Without treatment, symptoms can last for months or even years. Symptoms may be persistent or they may come and go in waves. Getting treatment is crucial to dealing with these symptoms. Mental health professionals who specialize in treating trauma or PTSD can work with teens, and them where they are in their journey toward healing. Therapists will work with teens to create a comfortable environment where they feel safe enough to talk about their feelings and trauma. From there, they can help teens learn strategies and skills to deal with the triggers and feelings related to their trauma such as panic, anxiety, or fear. 

For some teens, a residential treatment center can provide the structure and support they need to work through their childhood trauma. At Equinox RTC, one of the strengths of our residential treatment center is our experiential approach which uses the residential environment to observe and help change come about in practical, everyday experiences. Milieu therapy provides “in-the-moment” intervention that is nearly impossible to replicate in traditional therapy sessions. At Equinox we believe that a holistic approach is the only way to help young men truly heal from trauma. We treat the entire person: mind, body, and spirit. It is our belief that evidence-based therapeutic approaches such as EMDR, neurofeedback, somatic experience, trauma-focused adventure therapy, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy are essential for your son’s healing process. 

Equinox can help your son with trauma treatment

Equinox RTC is a residential treatment center for young men ages 14-18. We are one of the leading trauma treatment centers, and we utilize cutting-edge neurological research to best understand the impact of trauma on developing brains. We strive to support the creation of self-sustaining, lifelong change at Equinox through our remarkable people and programming. When change is generated through a relationship-based and principle-centered focus, in which a teenager has the choice to comply, lifelong, sustainable change is achievable.

Using the relationship-based approach as our guide, our therapists understand the clinical importance of doing therapy outside of office walls, actively seeking relationships and change, and using the leverage gained to accentuate overall health. Research supports that boys need to be physically active to improve neurological internalization. Our therapists recognize how crucial this is for our boys, and that engaging in movement and activity together will only serve to amplify internal change and health.

For more information on how Equinox can help your son with trauma treatment, please call us today at (828) 414-2968.