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Does Low Self-Esteem in Teens Lead to Alcohol & Drug Abuse?

by Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell, studioD

Poor self-esteem is one of several factors that can lead to substance abuse in teenagers, according to MayoClinic.com. A teen who has a low opinion of himself might turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to boost his confidence and improve his social skills, at least temporarily. Helping a teen deal with his shaky sense of self-worth might prompt him to think twice about drinking or taking drugs.


Teenagers who feel they have little value might view drugs and alcohol as magic potions that quiets their self-degrading thoughts and help them cope more positively with daily living. For example, high school girls with low self-confidence were twice as likely as girls with high self-esteem to drink alcohol or use drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Teens who suffer from or who were victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse are at a higher risk of substance abuse during the teen years and as young adults.

Bully Victims

Persistent bullying by classmates and peers can cause a teen's self-esteem to take a nosedive. Teens who are physically attacked, teased or threatened in person or online are more likely to abuse substances than kids who aren't victimized by bullies. Teens who are harassed via email, social networking sites or other online forums are twice as likely as other adolescents to use a variety of substances, notes the NCASA.

Expert Insight

A study published in the November 2007 edition of the journal "Ethnicity and Health" set out to determine whether a new culturally tailored substance abuse treatment program on the rural island of Molokai in Hawaii was effective. Primary causes of substance abuse in the target group included low self- esteem, lack of self-identity, and deficient communication and conflict resolution skills. Participants took part in one-on-one counseling, group therapy and cultural activities. Researchers measured behavioral changes after the subjects completed participation in the multilevel evaluation plan. Although program data is still being compiled, study authors say they believe they've demonstrated a solid foundation for substance abuse program activities.

Boosting Your Teen's Self-Esteem

Encouraging your teen to feel good about her accomplishments, however small, can help improve her self-esteem. “We don’t tell our children often enough what they did right,” according to pediatrician Adele Hofmann, in a story at HealthyChildren.org. Complimenting your teen when she gets a good grade, completes her household chores or gets a new haircut can help lift her spirits. Talk to your health care provider if your teen's sense of self-worth persists or her drug or substance use escalates.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.

Photo Credits

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