Why is my teen self-harming? Few things trigger a more immediate panic reaction in parents than finding out that a child is engaging in self-harm.
Unfortunately, it’s fairly common, and the reaction of the parent plays an important role in helping teens in the recovery process.
Cutting into the skin is the most widely known form of self-harm. Teens do this using their fingernails, razor blades, knives, or even pen caps. Self-harm can also come in the form of burns, skin picking, hair pulling, or even hitting oneself.
Kids with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder are all at risk for self-harm, but so are kids with a history of trauma, neglect, or abuse.
Other potential risks for self-harm include the following:
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling rejected or lonely
- Feeling unsafe at school or at home
- Frequent conflicts with friends or family
- Impulsive behavior
- A tendency to take unhealthy risks (behaviors that could result in physical harm)
How do I know if my teen is engaging in self-harm?
Teens who self-harm tend be skilled at hiding their behavior from their parents, friends, and other adults in their lives. While some parents might notice scars or marks on a teen’s arms, torso, or legs, many of the red flags for self-harm tend to be subtle.
If you suspect that your teen might be susceptible to self-harm, be on the lookout for these signs:
- Suspicious looking scars
- Wounds that don’t heal or get worse over time
- Talking about self-injury (they might mention peers who engage in self-harm)
- Collecting sharp items
- Secretive behavior
- Wearing long sleeves and/or long pants in hot weather
- Avoiding social activities
- Wearing a lot of bandages
- Avoiding sports or other activities where they might have to change clothes in front of others
What triggers self-harm behavior in teens?
An important part of helping teens recover from self-harm is understanding why they do it in the first place. There isn’t a simple answer to this question but, in general, some teens use self-harm to relieve tension by stimulating endorphins while others use self-harm to feel physical pain instead of emotional numbness. Stress and pressure, anxiety, and depression are all associated with self-harm in adolescence.
Other feelings that trigger the impulse to engage in self-harm can include:
- Rejection by peers or adults
- Social issues
- Family discord
- Social media use, including videos and photos that show other kids cutting to cope with emotional pain
Get Help for Teens that Self-Harm
If your teen is engaging in self-harm, he or she needs professional help. Though self-harm is generally not considered suicidal in nature, there is an elevated risk of suicidal behavior for teens who self-harm.
If there is an underlying mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, medication might be prescribed. A good first step is to get a comprehensive evaluation by an adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety and depressive disorders. If your teen’s self-harm behavior is elevated and potentially life-threatening, hospitalization might be necessary.
Psychotherapy helps teens work through the triggers that contribute to negative thought patterns and learn positive coping skills to use instead of engaging in self-harm behaviors. Seek an evaluation from a licensed mental health practitioner who treats adolescents and has experience helping teens who engage in self-harm. Treatment options can include:
- Family therapy to explore triggers in the home and how parents and teens can improve communication patterns and help develop better coping skills for dealing with the stress at home.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to challenge negative and distressing thoughts, recognize the pattern of negative thinking, and learn replacement strategies.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to learn how to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, to learn to regulate feelings of anxiety, rejection, anger, and fear, and to learn positive coping skills.
Written by Katie Hurley, LCSW and author of The Depression Workbook for Teens.