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Warning Signs That a Teen is Self-Harming

teenage boy in hoodie looks upset
By LifeStance Health on January 7, 2021

Content warning: This article includes details about self-harm. If you are sensitive to this kind of content, please proceed with caution. If you are thinking about harming yourself, you can text the Self-Harm Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.

Self-harm is the act of knowingly hurting oneself, typically due to an underlying mental health condition. While cutting is one of the most well-known types of self-harm, there are other methods as well. Self-harm is not the same as a suicide attempt, but there is a lot of overlap.

Types of self-injury include:

  • Cutting the skin with a sharp object
  • Burning oneself with matches, cigarettes, or another hot object
  • Scratching to break the skin
  • Inserting objects, such as needles, just under the skin
  • Self-hitting or punching
  • Pulling hair
  • Banging one’s head against things
  • Breaking open existing wounds

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is unnervingly common in teenagers. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that as many as 14.8 percent of teenage boys and 30.8 percent of teenage girls had self-harmed in the previous year, though percentages varied by region. 

Is your teen hurting?
Our providers can help.

With numbers like that, there’s a very real chance that a teenager in your life could be hurting themselves on purpose. How can parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives help? The first step is to understand why people self-harm and what signs to look for. 

Why Do Teens Hurt Themselves?

Self-injury is an unhealthy coping mechanism that can cause a temporary relief in serious emotional pain. Though it does not make sense to many people who have never self-harmed, this behavior does provide a sense of calm to some people. This euphoric feeling is temporary and often followed by shame and guilt. 

Teens may also self-harm in order to:

  • Punish themselves for perceived flaws
  • Express strong emotions 
  • Release overwhelming tension
  • Cause a distraction when thoughts are overwhelming
  • Experience some feeling when they start to dissociate

In short, self-harm is a coping mechanism. It comes up when a teen has not yet developed healthy coping mechanisms for the real, strong, and difficult emotions they feel. 

Also Read: There’s a Mental Health Crisis in LGBTQ+ Youth, and Adults Need to Help

Signs That a Teen is Self-Harming

Teens who self-injure often try to hide evidence of their harm. This can be due to shame or fear that adults will stop them. That’s why the adults in their lives must be vigilant about detecting signs of self-harm. 

First and foremost, make notes if you start seeing more wounds on your teen than what is normal for them. The wounds would be different depending on what type of harm a teen is using. But generally speaking, many wounds of the same types should be a red flag.

For example, if your child suddenly starts having cuts on their body that are similar in size and at different stages of healing, this could be a sign of self-harm. While some scrapes and bruises are absolutely normal, wounds with patterns to them could be warning signs. 

Because teens may self-harm in areas that are easily covered, it’s not advised to rely on seeing wounds alone. Be sure to also look out for other signs of self-injury. 

In addition to the wounds themselves, teens may show signs of self-harm such as:

  • Insisting on covering more skin than is normal for their culture, activities, and current weather
  • Seeming fascinated with injuries 
  • Increasingly intense emotional outbursts
  • Worsening stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Isolating from friends and family

Self-harm is most likely to begin after a triggering event. These events may be something that seems like no-big-deal to adults but feels earth-shattering to teens. For example, teens may start cutting after a breakup. 

They may also start cutting after events that you know are difficult. A severe traumatic event, parental divorce, bullying, and more can trigger the intense emotions that lead a teen to self-harm. While these struggles are often behind self-injury, some teens start injuring themselves with no discernable triggering event. The driving issue could be something like depression. 

Also Read: Signs Your Teen is Considering Suicide

What To Do If Your Teen Is Self-Harming

First, take a breath. This isn’t your fault. Now that you know what’s happening, you can help them. That’s the most important thing to remember. 

If you suspect your teen is self-harming, start by having a compassionate conversation with them about it. Try to use “I statements,” rather than accusing. Some things you might say include:

  • The most important thing in the world to me is your safety. 
  • I have noticed (behavior). I’d like to know more about what’s going on. 
  • I love you. I’m here for you. 
  • I understand that things are hard right now. I want to make it better for you. 

Then, get professional help. A teen may feel uncomfortable opening up to you or other people in their lives. But therapists provide an open, safe place in which teens can express their emotions. Therapists can also work with their families! Ultimately, the goal is to help the teen learn healthy coping mechanisms and stop the harmful ones.

Is your teen hurting?
Our providers can help.