Understanding Teen Self-Harm

Self-harm can be a very confusing and scary topic for both teenagers and parents. It is generally a difficult thing to talk about, especially when a teenager does not fully understand why they are doing it. The best way to help a teenager to stop self-harming is to assist them in understanding and addressing the underlying issues.

When a teenager self-injures, they do not usually want to die. The biggest reason they self-harm is to cope with their stress and upsetting feelings. Sometimes when people feel physical pain, they are able to distract themselves from their emotional pain. There has been research that shows how self-injury can activate different chemicals in the brain, which is shown to relieve emotional turmoil for a short period of time.

Common reasons to self-harm:

  • To reduce anxiety/tension

  • To reduce sadness and loneliness

  • To alleviate angry feelings

  • To punish oneself due to self-hatred

  • To get help from or show distress to others

  • To escape feelings of numbness (to feel something)

Forms of self-harm

  • Cutting skin with razor blades or pieces of glass

  • Burning or hitting oneself

  • Scratching or picking scabs (to prevent wounds from healing)

  • Overdosing on medications

  • Pulling out one’s hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows with the intention of hurting oneself

  • Inserting objects into one’s body

Who is at risk?

Self-harm is generally more common than people would expect. It usually begins in early adolescence, but can happen at any age. Teenagers who have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem are the most likely to self-harm. There is no set predictor of self-harm, but the following increases one’s risk:

  • Abuse/neglect (past/present)

  • Bullying

  • Past episodes of self-harm

  • Losses (deaths, break-ups)

  • Inability or difficulty coping

  • High self-criticism

  • Addictive behaviors/substance use

  • Peers/family members who self-harm

  • Mental health issues

Signs someone is self-harming

It is not always easy to know if your loved one is self-harming because they tend to be secretive about the behavior. A teenager may go to great lengths to hide their injuries. You should look for the following:

  • Cuts/scars on arms, legs, and/or stomach

  • Wearing long sleeves/covering legs in situations where it doesn’t make sense (on a hot summer day)

  • Finding razors or other sharp objects

  • Unexplained or poor excuses for injuries

Emotional warning signs are important to consider as well. Some indicators may include difficulty handling emotions or problems with relationships. It is critical to recognize the signs and get help early so that the person’s behavior does not escalate or lead to other serious injuries.

What can you do?

If someone is self-harming, you need to encourage them to seek help. Talk therapy can help them understand what causes them to self-harm, learn more adaptive ways of coping, and find healthier ways to deal with their stressors. You cannot force someone to change their behavior - they have to be committed to change.

Express your concerns to them, but do not be overly dramatic about it. They need to know that they can come to you and have resources. If they are scared of your reaction, they may try to hide their self-harming. Self-harming can become addictive and habitual, so you will have to be patient during their recovery. Spend time with them and show them that you are there for them. You should also be monitoring them appropriately to make sure they are not in danger. And always remember that the parent, friend, or concerned loved one is never at blame.


If you or someone you know if self-harming, please have them contact the Self-Harm Hotline: LINK or text CONNECT to 741741 (United States). If you or someone you know is at immediate risk of harm, please contact local authorities or go to your nearest emergency room. Click HERE for emergency resources.