Understanding Teens and Self-Harm

By Alexa Ashworth – MFTC 

verified by Psychology Today

Teens and Self-Harm

When helping teenagers recover from self-harm it is important to understand why they do it.  Not every teenager is the same and there is no simple answer.  However, through supporting and listening to the root causes of why teens start to self-harm can help parent’s piece together their underlying feelings and symptoms.

Most commonly, teens self-harm to relieve tension or emotional pain they are carrying within their bodies and do not feel as though they have any place to release this pain.  Teens have described this feeling as an emotional burden that no one could possibly understand.  Several studies show that cutting is not a form of a suicide attempt.

Typically, self-harm behaviors are a way to cope with what cannot be easily expressed.  There are several ways a teenager may self- harm.  This can look like burns, skin-picking, hair-pulling, carving words or symbols on the skin, hitting oneself or breaking bones.

Feelings that may trigger the impulse for a teen to engage in self-harm are: anger, sadness, shame, guilt, rejection by peers or adults, family distress or loneliness.  It is very important to know what feelings are the most difficult for your teen to manage and explore this through honest communication.

Self-Harm Causes and Risk Factors:

Genetic: Many mental illnesses that can trigger the urge to self-harm are thought to have genetic components. People who are born into families that have a history of mental illness are at a greater risk for developing the disorder themselves.

Physical: Many types of mental illnesses are the result of imbalances in the neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation. People who have imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain may self-injure in order to experience emotions, or as a result of the mental illness.

Environmental: People who experienced abuse are at a greater risk for self-injurious behaviors. Self-injury is used as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions and trauma.

Signs, symptoms & effects of self-harm:

Valley behavioral health. (2017, October 03). Retrieved March 19, 2021,

It can be challenging to know when a loved one or friend is engaging in self-harming behaviors because it is often done in private. The signs and symptoms of self-injury will vary depending upon the methods a person uses and may include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts, even on hot days
  • Brushing off injuries as frequent “accidents” or as a result of being clumsy
  • Needing to spend a lot of time alone
  • Challenges with friendships and romantic relationships
  • Keeping sharp objects or implements of self-injury on hand
  • Withdrawing from once-enjoyed activities
  • Unpredictable, impulsive behaviors

Physical Symptoms:

  • Scars
  • Fresh scratches or cuts
  • Bruises
  • Broken bones
  • Patches of missing hair

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Ongoing questions about personal identity
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Worthlessness

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Emotional instability
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Increased anxiety, especially when unable to self-injure
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Disgust

Other risk factors include: being in your teens or early 20s, having friends who also engage in self-harm, insecurities around personal identity or sexuality, mental health disorders and drug, alcohol abuse or other addictions.

How do I find the appropriate treatment for self-harm?

It is critical to find treatment right away if your teen is cutting.  Given the right form of care, you can identify any underlying psychiatric problems (like depression or anxiety) and prevent the cutting from becoming a worse habit.  The longer your teen engages in a form of self-harm the harder it is to help them find other ways to cope.

This dangerous coping strategy can interfere with intimacy, productivity or sustained happiness later on in life.  Treatments such as psychotherapy, psychiatry, treatment centers that specialize in cutting or self-harm support groups can help your teen speak openly about their problems and not feel alone in what they are facing.

How to understand a loved one with self-harm behaviors?

There are several ways to help your teen if they are cutting.  First and foremost, you must tend to your own feelings and understand your position in relation to what your teenager may be experiencing.  By understanding your own feelings about what is happening, you can better tend to your child or loved one’s feelings.

Second, learn as much as you can about cutting through online resources or calling professional services to be guided in the right direction.

The third and most important thing you can do is accept your teenager’s word as truth, be there to love them and believe in their ability to heal.  When you start educating yourself and engage in honest conversations with your teen, they may resist your support at first.  Remember that your teen may be embarrassed or ashamed, while afraid of what type of consequences will take place if you find out.  To ease these extreme worries, listen to your loved one without going straight to any form of punishment.

All you have to do is simply understand and make it known you are there to offer encouragement and support.  Be patient, stay calm and don’t give up on your child throughout this process.  As you are seeking ways to understand you might try spending more intentional quality time with your child and engaging in positive activities, to show your child it is not all about cutting and is more about positively engaging with life.






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