The Connection Between Low Self-Esteem and Substance Abuse Among Teens

Self-Esteem and Substance Abuse Disorders in Teens

“I’m not good enough.”

“I am a failure.”

“I’m too stupid to do that.”

What is Low Self-Esteem and Why is It So Important to Teen Addiction?

Sometimes the causes of addiction are obvious, but in most cases the reasons why teens abuse drugs and alcohol are unknown to them — and parents.

When you don’t feel well about yourself you don’t treat yourself well.

Low self-esteem is one of the most common precursors to substance use and addiction in adolescents.

The connection between low self-esteem and teenage substance abuse is long documented. Many treatment programs incorporate addressing self-image as a critical component of recovery.

Self-esteem, put simply, is the way we perceive ourselves. Self-esteem for teens is critical in development for the human spirit; our sense of self-worth governs our self-talk, ability to establish boundaries, and stand up for one’s body, values, and happiness.

Someone with high self-esteem finds themselves capable, ready to tackle the world, self-assured, and confident.

In contrast, those with low self-esteem hold themselves in little regard and experience shame, unworthiness, and do not feel comfortable in their own skin. They are easily swayed, need someone to comfort them, and are less equipped to handle their emotions in a healthy way. Furthermore, those with a negative self-image tend to downplay their accomplishments, belittle themselves, and do not value their worth.

Teenagers with low self esteem may be depressed, experience intense feelings of shame, and desperately want to fit in like everybody else. Many teens feel they are socially inept without abusing addictive substances. Low self-esteem is often the precursor of adolescent drug problems which may follow teenagers into adulthood.

Low self-esteem is one of the leading catalysts of addiction among teens. Though low regard for oneself is a separate issue from substance abuse, without improving one’s self-esteem, relapse, recidivism, and the development of a full-blown substance use disorder is common in adolescents.

Without therapy, self-abasing becomes all-consuming, governing one’s behavior and compromising decision making. As these patterns continue to spiral, teens find themselves taking potentially addictive substances to numb problems stemming from low self-esteem.

Causes of Low Self-Esteem

The best place to work on overcoming low self-esteem is in a therapeutic setting with a mental health professional. To move thought patterns toward healthy self-esteem, first identify some of the underlying causes of low self-esteem. 

These can include: 

  • Friends that are negative influences
  • Trauma or abuse
  • Stressful life events
  • Academic challenges
  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Social media
  • Bullying or loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Medical issues
  • Body image

Negative Self Talk Has the Following Effects:

This inner critic can ruminate on mistakes or cringe-worthy events. Negative self-talk can be rude or unkind, with criticism or judgments about our behavior, appearance, or work/school. It will detract from self-esteem, self-assurance, and productivity. Effects of negative self-talk include:

  • Dramatic influence on how teenagers perceive their bodies
  • Negative impact on the way teens speak to themselves internally (i.e.: “I am stupid” vs. “I made a mistake and I’ll do better next time”)
  • Negative effects on the central nervous system
  • Disturbing, recurring thoughts
  • Development of depression or suicidal thoughts
  • Allowing others to address oneself negatively, without question
  • Not recognizing abuse when it’s happening
  • Staying quiet about important things; i.e.: not reporting assault

Learning how to recognize and tune out negative self-talk can be difficult, but it can really influence success.

Why Self-Esteem and Addiction Go Hand-in-Hand

Foundations built upon low self-esteem are dangerous because teenagers, in an attempt to feel fulfilled and acknowledged, will seek validation in the wrong places. Many teenagers experiment with drugs and alcohol to fit in with the crowd; the feeling of “belonging” becomes misappropriated with perpetuating substance abuse.

Escaping the psychological pain of low self-esteem continues manifesting in abusing one’s substance of choice — until the adolescent body becomes physically dependent upon the addictive substance and a full-blown substance use disorder is developed. Abuse of legally prescribed medicines also places teens at risk for addiction.

Reasons Teenagers Self-Medicate:

  • Soothe anxiety
  • Lift depression
  • Fit into otherwise socially awkward situations
  • Alleviate suicidal thoughts
  • Quiet noisy thoughts; in some cases, to stop auditory hallucinations

Without being aware of underlying disorders and their symptoms, high schoolers and parents are at a severe disadvantage, and lose out on valuable treatment time. The earlier one begins treatment — even before the development of a “full-blown” substance use disorder — the better teens recover.

Early treatment saves adolescents and their parents from the anguish and confusion of living with an undiagnosed mental health disorder into early adulthood. Waiting to pursue treatment may stunt personal growth, career ambitions, and psychological well being.

How Safe Landing Recovery Improves Self-Esteem

Safe Landing Recovery is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for teens; our treatment differs because we address the forces behind a teen’s self-rejection and help clients and parents understand where the roots of poor self-esteem come from. Treating teenagers for addiction requires a practiced hand, and is different than treating adults with substance use disorders.

We help teens unlearn self-devaluing beliefs, and teach them to celebrate themselves positively while reconstructing their perception of self. Our goal is to reach teens inside their own minds.

Treatment is only as successful as clients understand how to shift their thinking from negative thoughts to positive thoughts. We offer full support and continual therapeutic and psychiatric services to help teens develop these skills for sober living.

While addressing inherent mental health issues of low self-worth and self-esteem, many behavioral problems will also begin to ameliorate. Those with low self-esteem often feel rejected from “normative” groups, thereby acting out as a means to find where they belong. This will diminish over time as a teenager develops feelings of confidence and self-acceptance.

We teach our clients they already do belong.

During teen addiction treatment, clients and parents undergo intensive psychoeducation, where they both learn about the causes of addiction, symptoms of the disease, and barriers to sobriety. Throughout the course of therapy, teenagers learn how to appropriately express their feelings, plan for the future, and focus on strengths on which to build their future academic careers!

Safe Landing Recovery offers a variety of therapeutic modalities to achieve recovery including:

  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Harm Reduction Treatment
  • Life Skills

The behavioral health team at Safe Landing Recovery gets to know each teen and creates an individual recovery plan tailored to their specific situation, history and needs. We understand that by learning to value themselves, teens also learn to value their recovery. That’s why our teen rehab programs are specially designed to enhance each client’s sense of self-worth.

Contact us at 844-486-7205 to learn more about how we can help your teen.


Tell us a little bit about you or your loved one: