Why Shame Is The New Trauma And How It Fuels Substance Abuse In Teens


Substance abuse in troubled teens is often a result of shame, or more specifically, shame-based trauma – so, why is it then that parents never hear about it? It’s not because it doesn’t exist; it’s primarily because shame isn’t something people want to discuss, nor is it a comfortable topic when they do. However, more and more, experts are acknowledging that shame may actually be the catalyst of many teens’ troubles, fueling not just substance abuse, but leaving them at risk for academic problems, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues as well.

When a teenager experiences shame, it can come from a variety of sources. These may include: failure of important tasks (particularly in front of an audience); body image, including physical appearance, odors, cleanliness, or even biological functions (using the restroom); confusion regarding sex, sexuality, or experiencing sexual abuse; the inability to control impulsive behaviors in public; class, social status or ethnicity; and humiliation or bullying from their peers. Shame may even stem from dysfunctional communication habits within the family unit itself – although this should not be assumed to be parent-generated dysfunction, as it is more related to the perception from the adolescents themselves.

Dr. Brene Brown: “Shame is Lethal”


A teen’s extreme reaction in even normal circumstances may come down to their emotional immaturity and the extreme ranges that their sensitivities encompass. In addition, their volatility of can lead to any emotional or mental health problems being compounded. [1] This is where shame evolves into trauma, and this trauma leads to poor decision-making. With most teens, it becomes a downward spiral from there, and ultimately leads to poor academic performance, behavioral problems, substance abuse and more. But, there is a way out.

Recognizing shame and its relationship to trauma is the first step in parents finding the right way to help their teens recover. Unlike guilt, which although can be damaging in teens stems more from a “bothered conscience,” shame is a deeper, more intense emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. [2] Though shame often reveals itself through negative behaviors, it can stay hidden for a very long time – and according to shame specialist Dr. Brené Brown, shame can be lethal.

Dr. Brown specifically notes that secrecy, silence and judgement are a breeding ground for shame, causing it to grow. Simply put, teens marinate in their shame as a result of holding it all in, and with the absence of an outlet for it, its ability to destroy lives is boundless – and they frequently turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping. Interestingly, however, when shame is surrounded by empathy, it tends to self-destruct – and this is exactly what struggling teens need to build a healthy, sober life.

We at Turning Winds Academic Institute know that shame is a deeply rooted problem that can only be conquered through therapeutic methods which involve empathy and compassion. Our treatment programs combine the benefits of wilderness therapy, a residential treatment center, and a therapeutic boarding school in order to build a struggling teen’s character and self-esteem, all while helping them work through the issues that have caused them such emotional difficulties.

A healthy, sober life means beating addiction and helping teens holistically prepare for a better future, and freeing a teen from shame is a part of their recovery.


[1] “Sinking into the Ground”: The Development and Consequences of Shame in Adolescence

[2] “Guilt and Shame.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. 


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