Teen Girls More Vulnerable to Substance Abuse

Self-Medication More Likely for Girls

Anguished Teen
Girls More Vulnerable to Alcohol, Drugs. © Getty Images

If you are the parent of a teen girl, you probably think it's much less likely for your child to become involved in drugs and alcohol than her male counterparts simply because boys are more likely to get into trouble than girls. The problem is, research does not support that notion.

According to the scientists, teen girls have a particular vulnerability to developing alcohol and drug problems due to their greater susceptibility to peer pressure, and teen girls are more likely to to have co-occurring mental disorders if they do develop substance abuse problems.

Girls More Likely to Self-Medicate

No parent wants to think that their child will turn to substance abuse, and many of them think it won't happen to their kid. Unfortunately, the statistics tell a different story.

Research by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (now The Partnership at DrugFree.org) found that teen girls were more vulnerable to substance abuse problems probably because they are more likely to use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate that boys are.

Girls See 'Benefits' of Drug Use

According to the research brief by The Partnership, teen girls, more than boys, perceive the potential benefits of using drugs and alcohol. They think that drugs can help them deal with their problems, according to the 2009 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS).

Some of the findings of the study about teen girls included:

  • 68% of girls said, "using drugs helps kids deal with problems at home" (up from 61% in 2008).
  • 53% said drugs helped teens forget their problems (up from 48% in 2008).
  • 59% of teen girls reported using alcohol (up from 53% in 2008).
  • Past year use of marijuana increased 29% from 2008 to 2009.

More troubling, the PATS study found that girls' attitude toward illegal drugs is changing. Only 77% of teen girls think Ecstasy can be addictive (down from 82% in 2008) and only 33% of girls said they "don't want to hang around drug users."

Girls More Susceptible to Friends' Drinking

Many studies have found that teens who have friends who drink are more likely to drink themselves, but this influence may be especially strong for girls, a Virginia Commonwealth University study of 4,700 twins has found. Male and female teens who have opposite-sex friends who drink are even more likely to drink.

The researchers examined a twin study of behavioral development and health-risk factors from Finland to analyze the association between friendship characteristics and alcohol use.

Environmental Pressure a Key Factor

"Our findings suggest that girls may be more susceptible to their friends' drinking," said lead author Danielle Dick in a news release, "and that having opposite-sex friends who drink is also associated with increased drinking, for both sexes. Furthermore, genetically based analyses suggest that the correlation between adolescent and/or friend drinking was largely attributable to shared environmental effects across genders.

"This suggests that the association between an adolescent's alcohol use and that of his or her peers is not merely a reflection of genetic influences on the adolescent's own alcohol use that cause them to select drinking peers."

Girls More Likely to Have Co-Occurring Disorders

A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study found that girls ages 12-17 are more likely to start substance abuse treatment at an earlier age, more likely to have a co-occuring disorder and more likely to to report alcohol or inhalants as their primary substance of abuse, than boys of the same age.

The SAMHSA report also revealed:

  • 23 percent of girls had co-occurring disorders, compared with 18 percent of boys.
  • Marijuana was the primary drug of abuse for 72 percent of boys, but only 51 percent of girls.
  • Alcohol was the primary drug for 23 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys.
  • Cocaine, opiates, and other drugs accounted for 14 percent of admissions for girls and 8 percent for boys.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to enter treatment before age 16 for alcohol (44 percent vs. 30 percent of males) and for marijuana (47 percent vs. 39 percent).
  • Boys were more likely to enter treatment via the criminal justice system -- 55 percent compared with 39 of girls.
  • Treatment admissions referred by an individual person, such as a family member, were more common for girls (21 percent) than boys (16 percent).

What Parents Can Do

To try to keep your children, especially girls, away from substance abuse, researchers suggest that you pay close attention to your daughters' moods and mental health needs while addressing their worries and stresses. If parents suspect their teens are experimenting with drugs, they should take immediate action, researchers said.

Parents also need to be aware of their child's friends, as well as how they spend their time together. "This awareness," said Dick, "is particularly important for girls, and when the friendship group consists of members of the opposite sex."

Parents also need to be aware that teen girls are more likely to use alcohol and drugs to boost their confidence, reduce tension and cope with problems, so those needs must be addressed by other, more healthy means.


Dick, DM, et al "Gender Differences in Friends’ Influences on Adolescent Drinking: A Genetic Epidemiological Study." Alcholism: Clinical & Experimental Research December 2007

Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "Teenage Girls: Increasingly vulnerable to alcohol and drug use." July 2010.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Adolescent Treatment Admissions by Gender: 2005." The DASIS Report May 2007

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