Self-Harm in Teens

Self-injury often starts in the preteen or early teen years.

About 17% of teenagers intentionally harm themselves at least once, according to the American Psychological Association.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health reports family problems, school or job challenges and struggling relationships with friends as contributing factors to those who have injured themselves.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the act of deliberately inflicting pain to yourself through methods such as cutting, scratching, hitting, burning, biting, etc.

Self-injury is a harmful coping mechanism for those facing emotional distress, sadness, anger, stress or trauma.

Oftentimes, this is followed by feelings of shame or guilt and the return of painful emotions. While self-harm may not necessarily be intended as a suicide attempt, it can lead to more serious risks.

READ MORE: Why Children Intentionally Hurt Themselves

What are Signs of Self-Harm in Teens?

Many who harm themselves do so in secret and try to keep their self-harm injuries hidden.

  • Observe your child for changes in behavior and appearance:
  • Physical signs such as cuts, bruises, scars
  • Behavioral changes, isolation, mood swings
  • Emotional cues such as feelings of worthlessness

Subtle signs to look for include sleep disturbances, spending a lot of time alone in their room, avoiding friends and family, staying home and low energy. Teens who have depression are at higher risk of engaging in self-harm.

Other physical signs include blood stains on clothing or finding tissues with blood in their room.

Here are some physical signs on to look for:

  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or burns, often on their wrists, arms, thighs and chest
  • Wearing long sleeves, and trousers or tights, even in hot weather
  • Refusing to change clothes in front of other people, for example for PE or in changing rooms
  • Signs they have been pulling their hair out
  • Changes in eating habits – over-eating or under-eating
  • Exercising excessively.

How can Parents Address Self-Harm in Teens?

If you suspect or confirm your child is harming themselves, learn about self-harm to better understand what your child might be going through.

Engage in regular conversations with your child without judgment. Create a safe space for your child to ask questions and share their concerns. Have open communication and provide a supportive environment. Parents should acknowledge the way they are feeling and teach them about emotions/feelings and how to best handle them.

Initiate the conversation:

  • Choose the right time and private, calm setting
  • Actively listen to their concerns and validate their feelings
  • Express concern and support rather than accusation.

People who harm themselves are trying to feel better emotionally. Physical pain causes nerve endings in the affected areas to send emergency signals to your brain, releasing chemicals that make you feel better briefly. However, the effect does not last very long, which can cause people to harm themselves to try it more often to feel better.

Seeking help from a mental health care provider can reduce the chances that someone will continue to self-harm. Seeking professional help is seeking medical care for a physical condition. It is possible for your child to feel better both physically and mentally.

Kids’ Minds Matter Can Help

Kids’ Minds Matter exists to help connect children and teens with mental and behavioral health support.