Trauma and Substance Abuse in Teens

What is Trauma? Bad things happen to nearly everyone in this sinful world. If we live long enough, we all will experience some sort of traumatic event. It could be the death of a loved one, living through a divorce in your family, being the subject of bullying or prejudice, being the subject of abuse (whether it’s verbal, sexual, emotional, or physical abuse) or abandonment. Trauma can also include events such as an accident, a serious injury or illness, or a natural disaster. When these things happen when we are young, it can be especially hard to deal with them and leave a negative impact on mental or physical development. Most of us will experience at least one traumatic event before we are adults. And the more adverse experiences a child has, the more impact these events have  on their development.  This can cause emotional and physical harm that can extend into adulthood.

How Does Trauma Affect Teens? Traumatic events affect us in various ways, and we all deal with trauma differently. When teens cannot deal with a trauma, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with the emotional or physical pain they have experienced. But neither alcohol nor drugs such as marijuana, heroin, illegally obtained prescription drugs, will help us cope with the trauma. At best, a drink or a pill might help us forget our pain for a few hours, but it will only make our ability to deal with the trauma we’ve experienced even harder.

Why do alcohol or drugs fail to help us cope with our emotional pain? There are several reasons why.  First, all teens must learn to manage our emotions. It’s just part of growing up. And a teen who is trying to deal with trauma can have difficulty managing emotions. They may feel they are failing and may turn to alcohol or drugs in hope that these substances will help them cope with the powerful emotions they must deal with. Second, those who experience trauma in their lives often show an increase in impulsive behavior.  It’s important to note that many teens have mood swings and can be impulsive. However, those who have experienced trauma are more likely to act out by abusing alcohol or drugs.

Gender differences: Boys and girls tend to respond differently to traumatic events. Girls are more likely to internalize their issues, to think that the traumatic event they’ve experienced is their fault and that there is something wrong with them. As a result, girls are more likely to experience depression and anxiety as a response to experiencing trauma. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to externalize their issues after adverse experiences. They tend to get angry, get into fights, and act out with risky behavior including drug or alcohol use. For example, in a recent study of Adventist university students who had experienced multiple adverse events before the age of 18, females were more likely to experience severe depression or anxiety while males were more likely to have used alcohol or drugs at least once to cope with the issues they face.

What you can do: If you have experienced trauma in your life, it is critical to understand that your life is not ruined! You are not alone. Help is available.

If you are currently being abused or neglected, or if you’re suffering from a history of abuse, find a trusted adult (a parent, teacher, Sabbath school teacher, pastor, neighbor, coach, etc.) and tell them how you feel. If you don’t have someone to talk to or they don’t help you, call 911 or a similar emergency response number. The dispatcher will get you the help that you need. It’s important to know that sometimes life can get more difficult before it gets better once others know about the abuse. See the tips below to help you cope.

If you have experienced a major trauma or multiple adverse events in your life, you probably are dealing with multiple physical and emotional symptoms as a result. This is your brain and body’s way of trying to protect you from further harm or cope with the harm that’s already been done to you. There are ways to learn how to cope with these symptoms without turning to drugs or acting out impulsively. Here are some helpful suggestions:

  • Some of the symptoms of trauma include the following: You can’t calm down, you’re overreactive, you can’t think straight, you may feel emotionally distressed, etc. This means your body is getting ready to either fight or run away from danger. Find a safe place and/or a safe adult who can protect and help you.  Once you are safe and out of danger:
    • Slow your breathing down (breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 6 seconds, then breathe out slowly—like you are breathing through a straw—for 8 seconds). Do this for at least 3 breaths, and for up to 20 minutes. It can take some time to calm your body down.
    • Focus on the goodness of God or a Bible verse that assures you of God’s love.  This can be done through prayer too. Do this for at least 5 to 10 minutes. Read and meditate on verses from the Bible (like Psalm 56:3, Psalm 23, John 3:16), and replace them with your name.
    • Do some anchoring exercises using all your senses. Ask yourself what are….
      • 5 things that you see,
      • 4 things that you can touch,
      • 3 things you can hear,
      • 2 things you can smell, and
      • 1 thing you can taste.
      • Get outside in nature and dig your bare feet into the dirt or touch some leaves or tree bark or lie in the grass.
  • When you notice the following symptoms coming on - feeling depressed, thinking or movements slow down, feeling numb, unmotivated, etc.—this means your body is in freeze mode and thinks it is safest to pull away from any potential danger.  Here are a few ways to cope:
    • Let your brain know that you don’t need to pull away from your surroundings. Try doing some of the same breathing and spiritual exercises listed above, and when you feel safe again, add some physical activity to get reactivated from that freeze mode.
    • Make it a point to include regular exercise such as walking outside and spending regular time in nature to improve your mental and physical health.
  • When you are tempted to do something that you know is not right, tell yourself to “Stop, relax, and think!” This pause will help you think more clearly and relax you.
  • Stay away from situations and people that may tempt you to fall into old patterns of thinking.
  • Research has found some children who have experienced multiple traumas in their life end up doing better in life than those who haven’t experienced any trauma. This is called being resilient. Being involved in church and other religious/spiritual activities, community service, and having a caring supportive adult in your life is a main difference between those who are resilient and those who struggle with their emotional issues.
  • If these suggestions aren’t enough to address the symptoms you deal with, or if you keep using drugs, ask for help from a healthcare professional. Finding help for your mental health issues does not mean you are crazy. We go to a doctor when we’re injured or sick. The same is true if we need help to heal our emotional or mental health problems.  Our brains are organs that need treatment just like any other organ.

Impact of Faith: Many who have been through traumatic experiences in their life may think that God doesn’t exist or that He doesn’t care. It’s critical to hold on to faith, even when God seems absent. The Bible says to “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NRSV). God knows that we experience distress in this sinful world. He has experienced it Himself with the torture and death of His one and only Son. We are told in the Bible that God “consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4 NRSV). Those who have experienced trauma in life can provide support to others in ways that those who haven’t experienced trauma are able to do.

If you have used drugs to cope with past trauma or acted out impulsively, that doesn’t mean you are a bad person. Jesus knows what you have gone through or are still going through. He lived through the distresses of this sinful world Himself. He knows that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NRSV) we are told that “if we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 NRSV).

Resource on Adverse Childhood Experiences


Bemford, R. (2019). Window of tolerance. Retrieved from: 

Davis, S., McBride, D.C., & Baltazar, A.M. (2023). Differences in gender response to adverse childhood experiences. Presented at the Psychology Section of Michigan Academy of Science Arts and Letters conference on March 17, 2023, in Berrien Springs, MI.

Dube, S.R., Felitti, V.J., Dong, M., Chapman, D.P., Giles, W.H., & Anda, R.F. (2003). Childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction and the risk of illicit drug use: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Pediatrics, 111(3), 564–572.

Hopkins, G.L., McBride D.C., Hopp Marshak, H., Freier, M.C., Stevens, J., Kannenberg, W., Weaver, J., Sargent, S., & Landless, P. (2007). Developing Healthy Kids in Healthy Communities: Eight Evidence Based Strategies for Preventing High Risk Behaviors.  Medical Journal of Australia, 186, S70-S73.

Oral, R., Ramirez, M., Coohey, C. Nakada, S. Walz, A., Kuntz, A., Benoit, J. & Peek-Asa, C.  (2016). Adverse childhood experiences and trauma informed care: the future of health care, Pediatric Research, 79(1-2), 227–233.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Tull, M.T., Weiss, N.H., & McDermott, M.J. (2016). Post-traumatic stress disorder and impulsive and risky behavior: Overview and discussion of potential mechanisms. In Comprehensive Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (Colin R. Martin, Victor R. Preedy, Vinood B. Patel, Eds.) pp. 803-816.

Werner, E. (2005). Resilience and recovery: Findings from the Kauai longitudinal study. Research, Policy, and Practice in Children’s Mental Health. 19(1), 11-14.

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