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Is Your Teen Self-Harming? What Parents Need to Know

How to Help a Teen Who Self-Harms: Understanding Support and Recovery

Is your teenager suddenly wearing long sleeves all the time and being more secretive about their behaviors? Do you fear that they are struggling with anxiety and depression and that the behavior may be escalating?

If so, then you may want to consider whether or not your child is dealing with thoughts or actions of self-harm.

Self-harm, clinically known as non-suicidal self-injury disorder, is a mental health condition that causes someone to injure themselves on purpose. It can be a coping mechanism when dealing with intense emotional challenges, and it can also be a way for teens to communicate with their loved ones when they need help. This condition is more common than many parents thing.

One study found that 22% of teens surveyed indicated they had participated in self-harm behavior at least once.

Self-harm can involve cutting the skin, burning the skin, hitting themselves, or scratching and rubbing the skin enough to damage it. Discovering that your child is engaging in these harmful behaviors is frightening as a parent.

Thankfully, if you take action and get the right help and support, this mental health disorder is treatable. Your teen can recover and learn healthier ways to deal with their intense emotions. Here’s what you need to know to spot self-harm and seek help quickly to support your teen.

Signs and Symptoms That Could Be Red Flags

For most teens, self-harm is done in private and in a way that’s easy to cover up. That makes it hard for parents to spot the signs until the behavior has progressed and serious damage is done. However, there are some subtle signs that can indicate a problem is brewing. These are:

  • Unexplained injuries: Cuts, especially on the thighs, chest, wrists, or arms, and other wounds that can’t be explained are the most obvious signs.
  • Clothing: Teens may start wearing long pants and long sleeves, even when it’s hot, to cover their marks.
  • Privacy: If a teen suddenly starts wanting privacy for changing clothes and similar activities, even in situations that are normally public, like changing rooms or PE class, it can be a red flag.
  • Thinning hair: Pulling hair out is a type of self-harm.
  • Changes in eating: Self-harm and eating disorders often co-exist, so if your child is suddenly over- or under-eating, it can be a sign to look deeper.


These red flags may not mean a teen is struggling with self-harm, but they do mean it’s a good idea to take a closer look. You may be the one who can catch a problem before it gets worse and help your teen get the care they need.

Why Teens Self-Harm

Self-harm is a complex mental health disorder, and for a parent, it seems odd that someone would cause physical pain. While the cause is complex, usually it stems from overwhelming emotional pain.

This could be due to anxiety, loneliness, feelings of self-doubt, anger, and depression. Teens may feel like they need to punish themselves for something they have done that they believe is bad or wrong.

Self-harm gives kids the feeling of control over their bodies, and when life around them feels out of control, it can relieve some of the pressure and anxiety they are feeling inside.

The reason self-harm works is that physical pain causes the brain to release endorphins and painkillers. This sudden release of chemicals helps the body deal with the trauma of a wound, and it may relieve some of the mental anguish a teen is also feeling. Thus, the teen continues to seek relief through self-harm, and it becomes a habit.

Self-Harm Triggers

While mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are often a cause, most teens who self-harm can pinpoint a trigger. Each person’s trigger is different, but some common ones include:

  • Bullying
  • Friendship changes
  • Academic stress and pressure
  • Family conflicts
  • Major life changes, like the death of a loved one or
  • parental divorce
  • Abuse
  • Romantic breakup
  • Viewing self-harm content on social media

The condition can also be part of a gender identity crisis. When children aren’t cisgender or heterosexual, they are at higher risk of self-harm due to the stigma and bullying they may face. While this isn’t necessarily a one-time trigger, it’s worth noting if you have a child exploring their gender identity.

Long-Term Effects and Risks of Self-Harm

If you suspect your child is self-harming, getting professional mental health treatment quickly is vital. There are potential risks of not treating self-harm, and long-term self-harming behavior can cause some serious problems for kids.

First, self-harm can be linked to future suicide attempts, but most teens who do this do not have a desire to die. Instead, they want a temporary escape from the negative emotions they are feeling. However, if they cannot learn healthier ways to manage those emotions, they may eventually feel like the only escape is suicide.

Even if they do not progress to having suicidal thoughts, self-harm can increase feelings of shame and guilt. This, in turn, causes mental health problems to worsen. The behaviors also tend to escalate.

More frequent or intense self-harming behaviors can lead to severe injuries. There can also be medical complications, such as scarring, nerve damage, and infection, from self-harming behavior.

Teens who self-harm can have negative social consequences. They become isolated or feel like they do not fit in in social settings, and this can increase feelings of loneliness. It can also hurt relationships with safe friends and family members.

While these potential consequences are intense, the good news is that treatment is available. If you notice problems, get a mental health professional on board to support you and your teen in the days ahead.

Noticing Concerns? Here’s What Not to Do

If you notice problems that make you think your teen is self-harming, or you have found evidence of this behavior, the next steps you take can either make the problem worse or start the path toward healing.

One thing that you should not do if you find this problem is shame your teen. It’s normal to feel anger and shame yourself, but shaming your teen will only make them hide their behaviors more. Instead, assure your teen of your love and your dedication to helping them.

Similarly, don’t threaten your teen. This is not the time to punish behaviors, even though these negative behaviors do need to be addressed. Punishment will only increase their feelings of shame and anxiety. Instead, offer your support and care.

How Parents Can Help

As a parent, you are the best source of help for your teen while they struggle with self-harm. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma surrounding self-harm, but from that stigma, a fierce group of advocates has arisen.

First, learn all you can from trustworthy resources to help you become an advocate for your teen so you can champion for their care. Some good resources to tap include:

Next, go with your teen to seek mental health treatment. This step is hard for many youth to take, so they will need your support as you move forward with treatment. If the case is advanced or you suspect it may be turning into suicidal ideation, consider a residential treatment program.

These can be highly positive scenarios to get your teen the intense mental health help they need to recover.

Finally, take care of yourself. Learning that your teen is self-harming can take a toll on your own mental health. Get yourself into therapy, and take time for self-care during this season of life.

With the right care, most teens can recover from self-harm. As the parent, you can lead the way in seeking help and supporting your child while they start therapy and learn healthier behaviors.

Remember, help is available, and hope after self-harm is possible. Assure your teen of your love and care, take careful steps to avoid adding to any shame they feel, and take care of your own mental health through the days ahead, and both of you can come out of this period stronger and more resilient.

Self-Harming Resources: Need Help?

Crisis Text Line Text CONNECT to 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor 24/7 help for self-harm.

Benedict Cator

Published by
Benedict Cator

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