Uncovering Trauma’s Forgotten Child: Understanding the Link Between Childhood Trauma and Adult Adversities

Childhood trauma dramatically increases the risk of substance use disorder, mental health challenges and criminal justice involvement.

A child who experiences adverse childhood experiences can grow up to be the adult with an addiction or involvement in the criminal justice system

It’s all too easy to overlook the invisible scars of childhood trauma when we see an adult facing adversities such as addiction, mental health needs or criminal justice involvement. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) cast a long shadow, often shaping the trajectory of individuals long into adulthood. Yet, society frequently fails to recognize the hurt child within the adult.

The correlation between childhood trauma and subsequent encounters with the law, addiction or mental health treatment is distressingly clear. Research consistently demonstrates that individuals who have endured ACEs are at significantly higher risk of involvement in the criminal justice system, mental health difficulties and substance use in adulthood. However, amidst the scrutiny of actions of desperation or the stigmatization of addiction and mental health, the root causes of such behaviors are often obscured.

Consider the child who witnessed domestic violence, whose innocence was shattered amidst the chaos of their home. As they navigate the complexities of adulthood, their unresolved trauma may manifest in destructive behaviors—behaviors that society condemns without understanding the scars that drive them. When they are handcuffed or admitted to rehabilitation centers, it is not just an adult being restrained or treated; it is the wounded child still in need of help and healing.

Moreover, societal perceptions further compound this issue. The media sensationalizes arrests and addiction, often framing them as moral failings rather than the manifestations of deep-seated trauma. This perpetuates a harmful cycle of blame and shame, further alienating those who are already grappling with the aftermath of childhood adversity.

It’s time to shift the narrative. Rather than condemning individuals for their actions, we must acknowledge the complex interplay between childhood trauma and adult behaviors. By recognizing the invisible scars of ACEs, we can advocate for trauma-informed approaches within the criminal justice system as well as mental health and addiction treatment facilities. Instead of punitive measures, let us prioritize rehabilitation and support, addressing the underlying trauma that fuels destructive behaviors.

In conclusion, behind many adults in the criminal justice system or who use drugs or have an addiction lies a forgotten child—a child who endured unspeakable trauma and whose cries for help went unheard. It is imperative that we lend them our empathy and understanding, refusing to turn a blind eye to the wounds that continue to shape their lives. Only then can we break the cycle of adversity and pave the way for healing and redemption.

988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.


Hear the personal stories of peer specialists who experienced childhood trauma by watching or listening to Straight Up Care’s Reduce The Stigma.

If you’re interested in receiving peer support services, find the right peer specialist for you

Learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html

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