How Self-Esteem Influences Teen Sex Behavior

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According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than half of all teenagers in the U.S. have had sex by the time they reach age 18. Unfortunately, teens may lack the maturity and emotional resources to properly manage sexual relationships. It is not uncommon for teens to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as lack of protection or multiple sexual partners.

"Low self-esteem in children is a sure way to push them toward engaging in risky and reckless sexual behavior as teens. They wish to be popular and the inability to make wise decisions about the consequences of one's actions is at the core of the problem, explains licensed psychologist Patricia A. Farrell, PhD.

The CDC reports that half of all newly reported STDs occur in young people between the ages of 15 and 24 and that nearly half of all sexually active high schoolers did not use condoms the last time they had sex. Unprotected sex significantly increases the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or experiencing an unintended pregnancy.

Research suggests that self-esteem is an important factor in determining whether teens are sexually active, but the effect is different between girls and boys.

Teen Sex Behavior and Self-Esteem

A number of studies have found a connection between self-esteem and teen sexual activity. For example, one early study found that girls who reported being sexually active had lower scores on measures of self-esteem. What the results did not indicate, however, is whether self-esteem was the cause or a consequence of sex.

"Kids are impressionable and if they see that popularity in a group is related to risky sex, those with low self-esteem, especially the girls, will gravitate toward it," Farrell suggests. Some of this may be attributed to the fact that girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys, and are more likely to hold negative views of both their physical and intellectual characteristics.

One study found that self-esteem had differing effects on sexual behaviors in teen boys and girls: 

  • Younger girls with lower self-esteem are more likely to engage in sexual activity.
  • Teen boys with low self-esteem are less likely to be sexually active.
  • Boys who have high self-esteem are nearly 2.5 times more likely to initiate sex.
  • Girls with high self-esteem are three times less likely to have sex.

Half of the boys who had high self-esteem in seventh grade had sex by ninth grade. Of the girls with low self-esteem in seventh grade, 40% had sex by the time they were in ninth grade.

Another study looking at risky sexual behaviors in Nigerian teens found that adolescents with low self-esteem were 1.7 times more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors such as having sex without a condom, having multiple sexual partners, and having sex in exchange for drugs.

Research also suggests that low self-esteem can be a predictor for having sex at an earlier age.

Who Is at Risk

It is important to remember that not all teens with low self-esteem will become sexually active. Conversely, high self-esteem is not necessarily a guarantee that your teen will not become sexually active. In fact, research suggests that high self-esteem may actually make boys more likely to begin having sex.

Kids who have a strong sense of themselves and self-respect will not be immune from sexual urges, but having good self-esteem may help them to handle relationships in more mature ways. Teens who are struggling with their own sense of self-worth may be the most prone to unwise decisions about sex.

Warning Signs for Parents to Look For

Unless you have a very open relationship with your child, you may not know they are sexually active unless a problem arises such as unintended pregnancy, illness, or an STI.

If your child is dating, you should assume there is a possibility they will become sexually active. If you are fortunate to have a very trusting relationship with your child, they may actually come and ask you for advice. If not, you may find signs of contraceptives or evidence that your child is seeking out moments to be alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend for private moments.

The best advice, however, is to be proactive rather than waiting for signs. Talk frankly with your child about sex. Work actively to ensure they place a high value on themselves and their futures.

How Parents Can Educate/Support Teens

As a parent or caregiver, you can help foster healthy self-esteem in your teen as well as a supportive and caring relationship with you, which can encourage your teen to make healthy choices in all aspects of their life, including their relationships and sexuality.

Talk to Your Child's Pediatrician

If you suspect that your teen has low self-esteem or is depressed, talk to your child's doctor. Your child's pediatrician can screen for potential problems and also provide information about safe sex and birth control options.

Sexually active teens will also need non-judgmental education about the risks and responsibilities of sex, including proper medical care where appropriate.

Activities that raise self-esteem may help teens feel more empowered and in control of their lives and bodies.

Talk to Your Child About Sex

Farrell notes that parents and caregivers should model healthy close personal relationships. She also stresses the importance of engaging in open communication with children.

"Open conversations regarding questions that will be asked about sex are significant and parents must provide positive parenting practices to counter the information the children may get from their friends," she explains.

Such communication, Farrell suggests, shouldn't be restricted to a single conversation.  Instead, it should be an ongoing pattern of communication that helps kids feel comfortable talking about their lives.

"Research has shown that teens who shared their parents’ values, developed over years of open conversations, make better decisions about delaying sex and understand that sex does not mean love," she says.

Ideas for Initiating Conversations

Great opportunities to talk to your teen include while in the car (kids may feel more comfortable listening to what you are saying without needing to look at you, Farrell suggests) and in teachable moments such as while watching TV shows that feature relevant storylines regarding sex, relationships, and risky sexual behavior.

Address Signs of Depression

If your child is depressed or struggling with low esteem, there are things that you can do to help. Your teen's pediatrician may recommend treatments such as medication or psychotherapy to address underlying symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Offer Quality Sex Education

Recent findings from the CDC's National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys indicate that fewer teens are engaging in risky sexual behavior than in the past. While the research could not point to any specific intervention as the cause of this trend, access to medically accurate sex education programs and online educational information may play an important role.

Such trends suggest that parents may be able to reduce the risk by talking about making healthy choices and providing frank, factual information about sex, including safe sex practices and the consequences of risky behaviors.

Farrell notes that making sure that kids have access to age-appropriate, accurate information is imperative. "Several things that parents should keep in mind include asking the teen where they are getting their information about sex, what they know about relationships and the prevention of STDs, and what messages are factual and medically accurate," she suggests.

Resources for Parents

A Word From Verywell

It's important for parents to watch for signs of poor self-esteem or symptoms of depression in teens. It is also essential to remember that teens view their parents as the single largest influence on their decisions regarding sex. For this reason, talking to your kids frankly about sex is essential despite any awkward

Important topics to discuss include anatomy and physiology, STIs and protection, puberty, sex practices, boundaries, relationships, sexual orientation, contraception, pornography, and abuse. In many cases, educating yourself before having such conversations can be helpful.

If you suspect that your child might have low self-esteem or depression, take steps to get them the help they need. Look for ways to support your child's self-esteem and talk to your teen's pediatrician about treatment options that can help with depression.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.