A study published in the August issue of the journal Addiction and summarized on PsychCentral by Richard Taite looked at the impact of second-hand trauma on later substance abuse. Researchers looked for traumatic medical events in the families of 1.4 million children born in Sweden between 1984 and 1995 by examining hospital discharge records. They were able to identify children who had a parent or a sibling who had been diagnosed with cancer or an immediate family member who suffered an injury which resulted in permanent disability or who had been a victim of assault or who had died. They then assigned each child a score of 0-4 depending on the amount of secondhand trauma s/he experienced. Then the researchers turned to medical, legal and pharmacy records to see which of these children were diagnosed with substance abuse problems when they reached their 20’s.
The researchers took care to control for other factors that might promote substance use, such as socioeconomic status, drug use by family members, psychological wellbeing and parents’ educational level. What they found was striking: Children who experienced even one of the four secondhand traumas under study had twice the risk of later drug abuse. Children who experienced the death of a parent were at greatest risk. Having a parent or sibling who was the victim of violent assault was the second most powerful factor. The PsychCentral report points out that “substance abuse was even higher in children whose siblings had experienced trauma than it was in children whose parents had been traumatized”. The authors of the study had high confidence in their findings since they were able to conduct annual sampling of a national population over a period 16 years and because they had access to multiple data sources in order to identify cases of substance use disorders.
Of course, previous studies have noted the impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) on childrens’ emotional development. As I explained in another post researchers have found that people who endure a great deal of toxic stress spend much of their lives in fight, flight or fright. As the ACEs Too High Newsletter explained in October 2012:
However, the Swedish study suggests that we should be extremely thoughtful about the needs of children in families who are coping with even a single traumatic event. I think that a child who appears to be coping quite well in the face of a family tragedy may be at particular risk. If the child continues to achieve at a high level in school and doesn’t present obvious behavioral problems, it may be tempting for overwhelmed parents or busy teachers to imagine that she is relatively unscathed by a catastrophic event. However, recovering alcoholics and addicts often tell me that, as children, they acted to protect parents who were struggling with disastrous family events by stifling their own feelings and trying at all costs, not to add to their parents’ burden. Suppressing natural reactions to huge family events can take a huge toll on a child’s mood, even if the entire cost of the effort doesn’t appear until later in life. I often think of the observation made by author and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wofelt that “anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve“. He notes that adults commonly avoid discussing death with children because they fear they will exacerbate the child’s grief by taking note of it. But, as Dr. Wofelt points out, children will grieve anyway, and worse, they will feel all alone with their pain if adults do not address loss and help them to process it. Dr. Wofelt has suggested guidelines for helping children to cope with grief. While he is talking about what to do when a child loses a loved one, it is my experience that these guidelines are useful and pertain to any catastrophic family (or community) event. Here is Dr. Wofelt’s guidance:
How have you handled difficult family events with your children? Do you have your own suggestions?
You can read more about the Swedish study here:
Read more about addiction and the family in Dr. Wood’s books: Children of Alcoholism: The Struggle for Self and Intimacy in Adult Life and Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home