Childhood Trauma – Substance Misuse Connection

Childhood Trauma – Substance Misuse Connection

The childhood trauma – substance misuse connection is one of the most important interactions society as a whole must understand. It is profoundly life changing because it changes a child or teen’s brain circuitry – meaning how their brain wires, thus how it works, thus what that child or teen thinks, feels, says and does, thus the very quality of that child or teen’s life.

I was moved to write this post after reading The Boston Globe’s story, “Private Schools, Painful Secrets,” reported by Spotlight Team reporters Jenn Abelson, Bella English, Jonathan Saltzman, and Todd Wallack, with editors Scott Allen and Amanda Katz, for four reasons:

  1. To praise the courage of my good friend and colleague, Adrian S. Hooper, Jr., co-founder of Chooper’s Guide and The Choopers Foundation, who is one of the former students featured in this article, for speaking out about the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy and of which he’s not spoken until recently;
  2. To bring to light the very real childhood trauma – substance misuse connection as expressed by many of those interviewed for the article;
  3. To help raise awareness about the dire consequences for the developing brain (and thus a person’s quality of life) caused by sexual abuse and other forms of childhood trauma, aka Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the importance of helping those who’ve been abused get the help they need; and
  4. To share Adrian and the Spotlight Team’s request that readers with tips about this series speak out.

To my reasons #1 and #2…

Childhood Trauma - Substance Misuse Connection is more easily understood when we understand how the brain develops and what influences that development.

The Childhood Trauma – Substance Misuse Connection is more easily understood when we understand how the brain develops and what influences that development.

When sexual abuse or other forms of childhood trauma (e.g., verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect) happens to a child or teen, that child or teen’s brain is missing key brain wiring (brain developmental) processes, namely cells talking to other cells in areas of the brain needed for our adult-like, discerning reasoning and judgment capabilities.

As a result of these missing brain wiring (brain developmental) processes, the child or teen cannot “reason” that what’s happened to them is not somehow their fault — especially when it is an adult in their life who is either the one doing the abusing or the one(s) condoning the abuse by their silence or their inaction to stop it.

I mean really. Look at the photo of the 12 year old (2nd from left) in the image to the right and compare it to the photo of the 20 year old (far right). At a glance, we know that 12 year old’s “reasoning” skills are very different than those of the 20 year old’s – simply by looking at the class pictures. (The other two ages are 5 and 16.)

Now look at the brain scans above each of these photos. The darker colors represent brain maturity. These scans further drive home the point that the 12 year-old (let alone the 5 year old or 16 year old) brain is incapable of the 20 year old’s adult-like, discerning reasoning and judgement capabilities. [It’s now understood this developmental process lasts until age 22 for women, on average, and 24 for men.]

Without this critical brain wiring (brain development) in place, a child or teen is incapable of reasoning the reality of the situation, namely that the abuse or trauma is NOT their fault and that seeking help and talking about it is OK. Instead, the child or teen shuts down, going deep inside, deep into shame, confusion, self-doubt and self-loathing.

I know. I too was a victim of a sexual assault as a teen by an adult I knew and trusted who, when confronted, said it was my fault, that I’d done “things” that’d made him believe I’d wanted him to do what he did. Like other children and teens who experience sexual abuse and other forms of childhood trauma, I developed a way that I could cope with what I could not name or tell others (which also included the impacts of secondhand drinking, in addition to the sexual assault) because of my overwhelming confusion and shame (my article, “Bulimia Was Only a Symptom,” shares more of my story). For me, the coping method was anorexia and bulimia. For others, like my friend, Adrian, and the others who share their story in “Private Schools, Painful Secrets,” it was drugs and alcohol.

Now back to my friend, Adrian. He’d kept secret his sexual abuse at the hands of trusted adults at the boarding school he attended as a child/early teen. He kept it a secret for more than 50 years. And the ramifications were horrific. “I left the school…. I had a psychological shift. I was once a type A personality. I completely withdrew. I kind of lost faith in everyone and anything,” says Adrian in his film clip below. He was expelled shortly thereafter, became homeless as a teen and struggled with drugs and alcohol for years as a result of the trauma he’d experienced. But when Adrian learned what was still happening at boarding schools like the one he attended, he decided it was time to speak out so that others might find their voice and a way out.

Please watch Adrian’s clip…

Adrian S. Hooper, Jr. Tells His Story of Sexual Abuse and Childhood Trauma While Attending Fessenden School

To read the full story and hear what others experiencing sexual abuse similar to Adrian’s had to say, please click here.

I’m happy to report that Adrian is living in recovery and dedicates his life to helping others whose lives are devastated by substance misuse though his work with The Choopers Foundation and Chooper’s Guide‘s co-founder, Tim Cheney.


And now to my reason #3 for writing this post…

Childhood Trauma – Substance Misuse Connection

Childhood trauma – aka Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), includes:

  • Sexual Abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Mother treated violently
  • Household substance abuse
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

As the American Academy of Pediatrics explains in it’s paper, Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma, ” Many people can identify a person in their lives who struggles with a chronic illness like heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension. Most people also know someone who struggles with mental illness, substance abuse, or relationships in general. Traditionally, the health care system would point to high-risk behaviors such as poor diet, drug use, or a sedentary lifestyle as the primary causal factors. Questions for patients have focused on ‘What’s wrong with you?’ rather than ‘What happened to you?’ A 1998 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente is leading to a paradigm shift in the medical community’s approach to disease. This study of more than 17,000 middle-class Americans documented quite clearly that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can contribute significantly to negative adult physical and mental health outcomes and affect more than 60% of adults.1,2 This continues to be reaffirmed with more recent studies.”

Three key resources that further explain ACEs, aka childhood trauma, and their connection to substance misuse and other destructive behaviors, are:

And to my last reason for writing this post…

Readers With Tips on the Spotlight Story Covering Sexual Abuse in Private Schools Please Reach Out

“More than 200 victims. At least 90 legal claims. At least 67 private schools in New England. This is the story of hundreds of students sexually abused by staffers, and emerging from decades of silence today,” writes The Spotlight Team in its Boston Globe’s story, “Private Schools, Painful Secrets. Further quoting/sharing from their article:

Look Up Details on a Specific School

“More than five dozen private schools in New England have faced reports that their staff sexually abused or harassed students. Select a school from the dropdown menu below to explore the claims.

“Note: If a school is not on this list and you think it should be, please email or fill out this short survey.”

If you or someone you know has experienced what’s now coming to light, please leave a confidential message at 617-929-7483 or send an email to the Team at, or contact Team members individually as listed below:

Most importantly, know that you are not alone and that others are here to help.  

And thank you, Adrian, for your courage, strength and hope. Your stepping out and sharing your story will have a profound impact on others whose lives were changed by sexual abuse or other forms of childhood trauma.

©2016 Lisa Frederiksen
Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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