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National Institute on Drug Abuse -  NIDA NOTES
Child Abuse and Drug Abuse
Volume 13, Number 2 (July, 1998)

Some Child Abuse Victims Are More Vulnerable Than Others to Drug Abuse

By Neil Swan, NIDA NOTES Staff Writer

Studies examining the link between child abuse and drug abuse provide an illuminating profile of child abuse victims' troubled lives. Physical or sexual abuse typically victimizes a child in the trusted atmosphere of the home, unexpectedly and often repeatedly. Case histories show that the child abuser is often a family member or family friend, sometimes a parent, according to a NIDA analysis of scientific literature. The intimate, devastating, and clandestine nature of abuse destroys a child's natural trust, typically leaving instead feelings of low self-esteem, foreboding, and helplessness.

Studies have shown that drug abusers who were victims of childhood abuse have more significant problems in day-to-day living than those who are not victims of child abuse. Among drug abusers studied, those who are child abuse victims are more likely to have coexisting psychological problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); low self-esteem; an inability to display trust and develop intimate relationships or even friendships with others; high-risk behavior that increases chances of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; and self-destructive behavior, such as suicide.

However, not all cases of child abuse produce subsequent dysfunction, such as drug abuse, the studies show. Some variables related to child abuse victims help increase their resiliency against drug abuse, such as the absence of psychological disorders and the ability to cope well with adversity. Child abuse factors that tend to increase dysfunction, such as drug abuse, include:

  • severity and nature of the abusive contact and severity of injury;

  • a younger victim;

  • lack of appropriate coping skills, or tendency to "avoid" trauma-induced stress through flawed coping strategies such as drinking or taking drugs;

  • prior psychological distress or disorder;

  • family dysfunction; and

  • lack of social support following the abuse.

Research has shown few gender differences in how trauma affects victims, except in child abuse victims who also have coexisting psychological disorders like PTSD. Likewise, few such differences have been attributable to racial or ethnic variables.

NIDA NOTES - Volume 13, Number 2

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