Traumatic events in childhood run in families and often lead young people and adults to self-medicate using drink, drugs, food another harmful behaviour, according to a charity chief.

Martin Crewe, director of Barnardo’s in Scotland, said it was vital those working with troubled children and adults realised many are struggling with past experiences such as growing up against backgrounds of addiction, domestic violence, abuse or neglect.

He was speaking ahead of a major event on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in Glasgow on Wednesday.

The event aims to make Scotland the first “Ace aware” nation. It will be addressed by Dr Nadine Burke Harris, the American paediatrician credited with identifying the powerful impact children’s early life experiences have on their prospects as adults.

A recent UK study looked at ACEs such as addiction, parental mental health problems, relatives in prison, separated parents or domestic violence. It found those who had experienced four or more such experiences were four times more likely to drink heavily, 16 times more likely to use Class A drugs, and three times more likely to suffer heart disease, diabetes or respiratory disease. They were also 20 times more likely to be in prison at some stage in life and 15 times more likely to be a victim of violence.

Barnardo's Scotland and Paisley's Kibble Care Centre hosted a parliamentary reception last week to call on MSPs to do more to prevent children suffering traumatic events and to make sure those working with young people and adults are aware of the impact such events can have.

Mr Crewe said recognising the problem was easy, but the challenge was to make services "trauma-informed".

"We still often see punitive reactions to bad behaviour, which doesn't take into account what may be causing it," he said.

"If a child has not done homework, but the police were at their house last night for a domestic incident, it is worth asking whether homework might be a minor consideration in their life at the moment. At the extreme end, we know that the majority of prisoners in Polmont Youth Offenders Institution have experienced seven or more ACEs", he said.

Meanwhile Barnardo's works with families where the parents behaviour is also influenced by trauma in their past, he said.

"Some of those things are more likely to run in families. When you have grown up with something, you can to some extent think that is the norm. The research is less clear on this, but our general experience is that these sorts of experiences will tend to be more prevalent in some families than in others."

Mr Crewe called for more work to support children within their families, saying some needed to be taken into care, but too many decisions were taken without taking childhood trauma into account.

"If the child is suffering and there is no prospect of improvement it is right to take them into care, but these are massive decisions, with a huge cost attached that are still taken too much on the spur of the moment on a Friday afternoon.

"You would assume that it is a scientific well-thought out process and it is not."

Realising that unaddressed trauma may be part of the problem, and that this must be tackled first would help, he said. "The traditional approach to addiction would be to send someone to a drink or drugs service, and say that is the problem. A trauma-informed approach would say it is a symptom. Substance misuse and even obesity can be a result of self-medication."

Child and Adolescent mental health services are overstretched and lower level services are needed to tackle problems earlier, Mr Crewe added.

Don Johnson, clinical director of Kibble, said the centre was increasingly focused not on what was "wrong" with young people but on what they had experienced, and claimed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) could often be a symptom of ACEs.

"We have seen a big increase in diagnosis of ADHD in children from socially deprived areas and backgrounds. Many people feel that was misunderstanding what was really a product of difficult childhood and trauma," he said.

"Now every young person admitted to Kibble meets a psychologist within 72 hours and is given the opportunity to talk about harmful or scary experiences they have had."

Wednesday's event Making Scotland the World's First ACE-Aware Nation, run by training Company Tigers at the SEC Armadillo in Glasgow, is sold-out.

The Scottish Government says it is committed to preventing adverse childhood experiences wherever possible, and tackling their impact.

Minister for Children Maree Todd said: "We are taking forward a number of transformative actions which will have a real and lasting impact on the life chances of our young people such as investing more in infant mental health and providing additional funding for school nurses and counsellors."