SEL and Substance Abuse in Young People

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Adolescent substance use has long-lasting implications.

Roughly 50 percent of high schoolers report using substances such as alcohol and marijuana,1 14 percent report using illicit substances such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, and another 14 percent report using nonprescription opioids.1, 2

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that adolescent substance use is associated with risky behaviors that can harm youth. They note that substance use prevention should include “school-based programs that promote social and emotional competence.”3 Strategies for early prevention are critical for youth because most adults with a substance use disorder began using substances as young people.2

Risk factors

Adolescents are at increased risk of substance abuse when they:

  • Are rejected by their peers4
  • Develop hostile or controlling social goals (which can lead to peer rejection)4
  • Engage in bullying behavior5
  • Align with peers who use substances4
  • Overestimate (have erroneous norms about) how many of their peers use or approve of substance use7
  • Use other substances and are thus at an increased risk for opioid misuse8

Research-based SEL programs prevent substance abuse through the promotion of both personal and social skills.1, 2

Fifty percent of high schoolers report using substances such as alcohol and marijuana

Protective factors

The risk of substance abuse decreases when adolescents:

  • Regulate emotions and develop healthy coping skills9
  • Use social skills to develop positive friendships and healthy relationships
  • Possess effective refusal skills for saying no and still maintaining friendships
  • Empathize and self-regulate10
  • Exercise assertiveness and problem-solve in stressful situations4
  • Develop positive normative perceptions against substance use11
  • Form stronger ties to school, thereby increasing connectedness12


  • Prevention programs for elementary and middle school children should target improving social-emotional skills—including self-control, emotion awareness, social skills, and social problem-solving—to address risk factors for substance abuse, such as aggressive behavior, academic failure, and school dropout.13, 14
  • Early interventions that target shortcomings in social-emotional competencies (like poor self-regulation) can have greater impact than later interventions, shifting children’s life course trajectories away from problem behaviors and toward positive outcomes.14

Policy Recommendations

  • Promote access to research-based social-emotional learning in educational settings,15 and include research-based SEL strategies in substance use prevention efforts.
  • Provide sustainable funding streams to schools to fund SEL as a Tier I universal intervention for substance abuse prevention.
  • Create a framework for schools to equitably provide research-based substance use prevention strategies that encompass efforts that might fall outside the scope of SEL.
  • Provide funding to support research-based prevention strategies and to continue research to improve and evaluate promising prevention practices.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Teen substance use & risks. Retrieved from:
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). High-risk substance use among youth. Retrieved from:
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Substance use and sexual risk behaviors among youth. Retrieved from:
  4. Committee for Children. (2008). Second Step middle school complete review of research. Retrieved from
  5. Pepler, D. J., Craig, W. M., Connolly, J., & Henderson, K. (2002). Bullying, sexual harassment, dating violence, and substance use among adolescents. In C. Werkerle & A.-M. Wall (Eds.), The violence and addiction equation: Theoretical and clinical issues in substance abuse and relationship violence. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
  6. Harter, S. (1996). Teacher and classmate influences on scholastic motivation, self-esteem, and level of voice in adolescents. In J. Juvonene & K. R. Wentzel (Eds.), Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment (pp. 11–42). New York: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511571190.004
  7. Hansen, W.B. & Graham, J.W. (1991). Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents: Peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventative Medicine, 20(3), 414-430. doi:10.1016/0091-7435(91)90039-7
  8. Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health. (2019). Opioids and adolescents. Retrieved from:
  9. Wills, T. A. (1986). Stress and coping in early adolescence: Relationships to substance use in urban samples. Healthy Psychology, 5, 503–529.
  10. Kosterman, R., Hawkins, J. D., Spoth, R., Haggerty, K. P., & Zhu, K. (1997). Effects of a preventive parent-training intervention on observed family interactions: Proximal outcomes from Preparing for the Drug Free Years. Journal of Community Psychology, 25(4), 337–352. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6629(199707)25:4<337::AIDJCOP3> 3.0.CO;2-R
  11. D’Amico, E. J., Metrik, J., McCarthy, D. M., Frissell, K. C., Applebaum, M., & Brown, S. A. (2001). Progression into and out of binge drinking among high school students. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 15(4), 341–349. doi:10.1037/0893-164X.15.4.341

    Dusenbury, L. & Falco, M. (1995). Eleven components of effective drug abuse prevention curricula. Journal of School Health, 65(10), 420-425. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.1995.tb08205.x

  12. Hawkins, J. D., Catalano, R. F., Kosterman, R., Abbott, R., & Hill, K. G. (1999). Preventing adolescent health-risk behaviors by strengthening protection during childhood. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 153(3), 226–234. doi:10.1001/archpedi.153.3.226
  13. Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. (2002). Predictor variables associated with positive Fast Track outcomes at the end of third grade. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(1), 37–52.
  14. Ialongo, N., Poduska, J., Werthamer, L., & Kellam, S. (2001). The distal impact of two first-grade preventive interventions on conduct problems and disorder in early adolescence. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 9(3), 146–160. doi:10.1177/106342660100900301
  15. Surgeon General. (2016). Chapter 3: Prevention Programs and Policies. The Surgeon General’s Report. Retrieved from: