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Childhood Emotional Abuse and Adult Substance Abuse


What is Emotional Abuse?

The emotional abuse of children involves words, behaviors, and the actions of people who care for them that have mental negative impacts on the child. Also called psychological abuse, this type of maltreatment of children can lead to a wide range of problems that echo well into adulthood. 

Emotional abuse can impair a child's emotional development or self-esteem. Examples of behaviors by caregivers that can be emotional abuse are:

  • Regularly criticizing the child (belittling)
  • Issuing threats to the child (intimidation)
  • Withholding love and support from the child (rejection)
  • Refusing to give guidance to the child (ignoring)
  • Siblings are not treated equally (favoritism)


Since emotional abuse is done verbally, it is hard to prove it exists.

How are Emotional Abuse and Substance Abuse Connected?

 People who experience childhood emotional abuse have higher rates of alcohol and drug use – often leading to adult addiction treatment.[1],[2] Studies show that there are strong links between adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse, and the use of illicit drugs later in life.[3]

 Psychological abuse negatively affects:

  • The mental development of the child
  • Interferes with the development of the child's positive self-image
  • Creates long-term consequences
  • May lead to aggressive or risk-taking behaviors in the teen or adult years, such as substance abuse


While all emotional abuse is serious, people on the severe end of the spectrum were 7 to 10 times more likely to state they had illicit drug problems or an addiction to drugs or alcohol.[4] Also, research shows adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse, is a factor for 50-66% of serious problems with drug use.[5]

 Several reasons why people who experienced child emotional abuse turn to drugs or alcohol are:

  • They are less likely to trust others, so they feel isolated and lonely.
  • They repeat the pattern of seeking negative relationships that continues to expose them to emotional abuse.
  • They have problems getting close to others, so they have relationship difficulties.
  • They may choose poor relationships over positive ones.
  • They develop toxic behaviors.


These long-term effects of emotional abuse that extend into adulthood can make for a toxic and unhealthy environment. Drugs or alcohol use may start as a means of temporarily escaping reality or to numb negative emotions. Others may begin using substances as a way to relieve mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or feelings of worthlessness that have their roots in childhood emotional abuse. 

If you or a loved one experienced childhood emotional abuse and are living with a substance use disorder, with the right help, a better life is possible. Talk with your doctor or mental health professional about how best you can get treatment for psychological abuse recovery.[6] 



[2] https://buckeyerecoverynetwork...addiction-self-test/


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


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Comments (3)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

Great piece. Clear. Concise. Love the cause-and-effect way in which it is structured. Thanks for writing and posting! I bet Jesse and Theo are grateful for and proud of their dad. 

Peace and health,


Thank you! I have been working on a series of articles that try to clearly show the connection between childhood issues and addiction. I hope it isn't too much on one topic to start here.

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