Self-harm affects millions of people in this country. Yet the population with the highest number of self-harmers is adolescents and teenagers. Sadly, the topic of self-injury continues to be a carry a stigma, and thus, is rarely talked about. This unfortunately contributes to why so many self-harmers do not speak up about their struggle, and in the end, do not receive the necessary treatment.
Self-harm, also known as self-mutilation, is the act of intentionally harming or injuring oneself. Teens who engage in self-harm do not do so with the intention of killing themselves. Unfortunately, there is a common misconception regarding teens and the use of self-harm as an attention-seeking behavior; yet engaging in self-injurious behaviors is more often than not a sign of pain and/or distress.
Many teenagers use self-harm as a way to “self-soothe.” This means they engage in self-injurious behaviors as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions, stressful situations, traumatic memories, etc. For some teens, self-harm is used in moments where an immediate release of built-up tension is needed. For others, who use injure themselves on a more regular basis, the pain inflicted by self-harm creates a general “dulling” effect in terms of difficult feelings and emotions that may be experienced. Moreover, some teenagers report having a difficult time fully experiencing any emotions (feeling numb), and use self-harm as a way to “feel something.”
Regardless of the motivation, self-injurious behavior is often reinforced for many teenagers, as it often produces the short-term sense of relief. Unfortunately, the temporary sense of relief is more often than not followed by feelings of guilt and shame, which can in turn trigger the urge to self-harm.
Why Do Teens Self-Harm?
Although all teens are different and may be triggered to act out in self-injurious ways for varying reasons, there are some general motivations that drive many to harm themselves.
- Mental illness
- Low self-esteem/lack of self-worth
- Negative body image
- Confusion regarding sexuality
- Being the victim of bullying
- Family conflict
- Alcohol and/or drug abuse
- Difficulty expressing thoughts/feelings/emotions
- Feelings of rejection or isolation
If you suspect your teen might be self-harming, knowing the warning signs and what to look out for may be helpful. Unfortunately, spotting self-harm warning signs may not be as straightforward as it might seem, as every teenager is different, and there are many ways they might engage in self-harm.
Common Self-Harm Methods
- Cutting – often synonymous with self-harm, cutting is a popular form of inflicting pain upon oneself. Studies show approximately one in three individuals who self-harm use cutting as their primary method. It also seems females are more prone to cutting than males.
- Burning – in general, burning is the second most common form of self-injury when it comes to teenagers. Yet, there are various methods of burning one might use including using burning with lighters, matches, pots/pans heated on the stove,
- Hitting/head banging – many teenagers engage in self-harm through hitting themselves on various parts of the body until bruised and/or bleeding. Along the same lines, some teens hit their heads against a wall or other hard structure as a way to inflict pain.
- Scratching – scratching to the point of breaking the skin is another method of self-harm. Although not as common as cutting or burning, scratching can be a “desirable” form of self-injury, as no additional tools or objects are needed to achieve the desired effect.
Although not as common, some medical and mental health professionals recognize other forms of self-harm.
- Excessive exercise
- Hair pulling – also known as trichotillomania, some teenagers pull their hair out (often strand by strand) with the intention of inflicting harm. Although rare, some people with trichotillomania will ingest the hair after pulling it.
Warning Signs of Self-Harm
- Unexplained cuts and/or bruises – these unexplained wounds could be anywhere on your teen’s body. Important to remember here is the tendency towards secrecy when it comes to individuals who self-harm. Therefore, your child may try to hide his or her self-harm injuries on areas of the body that are not typically seen by others (upper thigh, inner arm, etc.)
- Long sleeves/pants – if your teenager is concealing parts of his or her body with long pants and shirts (especially in the summer months), this could be an indication of masking self-harm scars. Additionally important to note is any unexplained blood stains on your child’s clothing.
- Isolation – self-harm, by nature, is isolating. When teenagers engage in self-harm, they often begin to retract from socializing with friends and family. This stems more from a desire to hide the self-harm wounds than not wanting to interact with the individuals from which they are isolating.
- Loss of interest – teenagers often have a variety of interests that change from time to time. Yet, if you have noticed a significant change in your teen’s willingness to engage in activities he or she previously enjoyed, there may be a bigger issue.
- Secrecy – just as self-harm tends to be isolating behavior, it also tends to cause those engaging in the self-harm to be extremely secretive. Although keeping their self-harm a secret is often of utmost importance, it also takes a lot of energy to lie, hide, and conceal on a consistent basis. This can, and often does, cause more emotional pain for the self-harmer.
- Low self-esteem – low self-esteem is typically considered a classic symptom of depression. Low self-esteem can breed feelings of sadness, anger, and hopelessness, which can be overwhelming to anyone, especially teenagers. Adolescents and teenagers who lack healthy and effective coping skills for dealing with such emotions will, at times, turn to self-harm as a means of coping.
- Increased self-criticism – self-criticism is the act of pointing out one’s perceived flaws, which can unfortunately take an immense toll on a teen’s self-esteem and overall quality of life. Self-criticism, or negative self-talk affects one’s ability to believe in himself or herself
- Poor school functioning – a dramatic change in your child’s school performance could be a red flag to a more significant issue, such as mental illness and/or self-injurious behaviors. A change in school functioning may look many different ways such as neglecting assignments, a drop in grades, cutting classes, or altogether missing school.
- Mood swings – most teens experience mood changes and fluctuations (often associated with changing hormones). Yet, if mood swings are occurring at an increased rate and/or intensity, it could be an indication he or she is dealing with a hidden mental health struggle.
- Drug and/or alcohol use – self-harm is an indication of a deeper psychological issue. Thus, teenagers and adolescents who engage in self-harm are experiencing difficult emotions that they likely do not how to cope with. Using drugs and/or alcohol is a way to “numb out” from those difficult emotions.
- Fixation with violence – if your teen is expressing a fascination or fixation with violence or death, it is important to take note. This expression could be through artwork, poetry, violent music or video games, etc.
- Risk-taking behaviors – when a teenager engages in risky behavior, this is, more often than not, a sign of an underlying emotional problem. Promiscuous sex, drug and/or alcohol use, reckless driving, vandalism, and theft are all considered “risk-taking behaviors.”
- Eating disorder indications – unfortunately, eating disorders are becoming more and more common in teens today. The presence of an eating disorder is almost always indicative of mental illness. If your child’s relationship with food has changed in a noteworthy way, it could suggest a deeper issue.
- Lack of self-care practices – changes in self-care routine, such as a decrease in bathing, teeth brushing, etc. can be a strong indication of an internal struggle. Although such activities are seemingly simple, they are also often the first to be abandoned when struggling with mental health.
- Depression – suffering from depression increases a person’s likelihood of having self-harm and/or suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
Watching your child struggle with self-injurious behaviors can be extremely difficult. However, self-harm is treatable. If you think your teen may be struggling with self-harm, contact Polaris Teen Center at 844-836-0222 to find out more about treatment options and psychiatric services.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).