Medically Reviewed

The Link Between Child Abuse and Substance Use

2 min read · 1 sections

Parental substance misuse has a major impact on the well-being of children. Research indicates that in any given year between 2015-2019, more than 21 million children in the United States lived with a parent who misused substances, and more than 2 million children lived with a parent who had a substance use disorder.The Link Between Child Abuse and Substance Abuse¹ Parents with substance use problems are less likely to effectively function in a parental role. The negative impact includes disruption of attachment, rituals, roles, routines, communication, social life, and finances. Families in which there is a parent with a substance use disorder are often characterized by an environment of secrecy, loss, conflict, violence or abuse, emotional chaos, role reversal and fear.² Consequently, parental substance abuse is recognized as a risk factor for other negative outcomes within the family, including:2,3

  • Physical or sexual abuse. Studies suggest that a parent with a substance use disorder is 3 times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child. Additionally, one study found that alcohol misuse was more significantly related to child physical abuse than drug abuse.
  • Emotional and psychological trauma.
  • Neglect.

Child Abuse is Linked to Future Substance Misuse

Childhood abuse—in any form—can have a lasting and devastating impact on that child’s entire life. Studies suggest that these children, with a caregiver who misuses substances, are more likely to develop eating disorders, experience teenage pregnancy, have poor academic performance, have suicidal thoughts or actions, and use substances themselves.4 One study found that children who experience abuse have a 4.3-fold higher likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.5 Adults who were abused as children often turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for dealing with their childhood trauma. Results from a long-term study following abused children up to the age of 24 showed that physical abuse during the first 5 years of life predicts substance use later in life.6

Unfortunately, substance use later in life also increases the likelihood that these adults will perpetrate child abuse through the abuse of their own children. A recent study demonstrated how child abuse is reproduced across generations through increased use of alcohol and drugs.7


Childhood abuse is a strong indicator of substance misuse and addiction later in life. Adults who were abused or neglected during childhood often turn to drugs and alcohol for self-medicated coping. Along with the development of substance misuse problems, these adults are at increased risk for abusing their own children; increased stressors such as poverty, loss of employment, and illness only make things more difficult. These factors often result in a vicious cycle of child maltreatment and substance use disorders across generations of family.

Addiction treatment is an essential step for adults seeking recovery and looking to break the intergenerational cycle of child abuse and neglect. In addition to parents receiving the appropriate therapy at a rehab center, assistance for abused children may be provided by child welfare services, school systems, and healthcare providers. This assistance allows parents with addiction to get the necessary help they need while ensuring that their children are free from further abuse and neglect.

If you or a loved one struggle with substance misuse or addiction, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. Many of our treatment centers—spread throughout the country—offer trauma-based therapies, which can help address the underlying issues, such as childhood abuse, that contribute to substance misuse and addiction. Additionally, many of our facilities have specialized programs for individuals seeking trauma or domestic trauma support in addition to addiction treatment.

Let us help you break the cycle of addiction for you and generations to come. Call AAC at to speak to one of our compassionate and knowledgeable admissions navigators, who can listen to your story, answer your questions, explain your options, and help you begin your path to recovery.

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