How Self-Esteem Influences Risky Sexual Behavior in Teens

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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.

The CDC states 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 disease 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 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.

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 and 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 never know they are sexually active until a problem arises such as unintended pregnancy, illness, or an STD.

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.

Prevention

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 sexuality, 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.

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.

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