Self Harm in Teenagers

by Polaris Teen Center | Jan 18, 2016 | Mental Health, Resources, Self Harm

As difficult as it can be to sometimes address, self harm in teenagers has become a major issue. In fact, according to some studies, patterns of self harm occur in as many as 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males each year. Because the teenage years are associated with high levels of physical, emotional, and social change, teenagers are uniquely at risk to engage in self harming behaviors.

If you are a parent of a teenager who has begun to demonstrate patterns of self harm, you may be unsure where to turn. Many parents make the mistake of assuming they are overreacting and that these issues will simply resolve themselves on their own. However, making these assumptions can often be dangerous. If you hope for your teenager to recover and establish a state of emotional stability, then you may need to be proactive and take direct action.

Fortunately, there are currently more resources available for parents and teens than ever before. As the field of teen psychology continues to evolve, treatment options and available information have consequently been growing. Despite the difficulties you and your teenager may be facing in the status quo, there are still plenty of reasons for you to have hope. Real, tangible solutions are well within your reach.

What is non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI)?

Though there exists a strong correlation between patterns of self harm and suicidal tendencies, from a psychological perspective, it is still very important to distinguish these behaviors. Not all teenagers who demonstrate patterns of self harm have any plans on committing suicide nor do all teens who commit suicide have a history of harming themselves (there is a strong correlation, however).

Non-suicidal self injury (NSSI) is a psychological term used to describe any behaviors that are done with the intention of harming oneself without committing suicide. NSSI is particularly common among teenagers, meaning that parents should be mindful and watch for these behaviors to emerge.

  • Intentional carving or cutting of the skin
  • Sub-dermal tissue scratching
  • Intentionally burning oneself
  • Banging or punching objects or oneself with the intention of causing harm
  • Embedding objects under the skin
  • Purposely inflicting pain, damage, or scarring to oneself
  • Any other actions done with the intention of self harm

Usually, teenagers who harm themselves will do so not just once, but repeatedly over time. Parents should keep an eye out for things such as scars, burns, bruises, abrasions, and other evidence that self harm has occurred. Most teenagers who intentionally harm themselves will do so privately—this can make it significantly more challenging to know as a parent if these apparent damages were done intentionally or by accident.

What are some of the common causes of self-harm?

From an outsider perspective, it can be very difficult to understand why a teenager (or anyone else) would intentionally harm themselves. Many of these teenagers are often able to “project” an image of emotional stability for months or even years while still harming themselves in private. Because the experiences of each teenager is undeniably unique, the underlying motivations for patterns of self harm will typically be quite diverse.

Teenagers who engage in patterns of self harm may be dealing with overwhelmingly negative feelings or they may be feeling nothing at all. For those who are feeling “nothing”, there may be a variety of chemical, emotional, or social issues at play. These issues may be able to be resolved with proper medications, clinical counseling, or other possible treatment options.

There are also many reasons that teenagers may be experiencing an overwhelmingly negative state of mind. Unsurprisingly, patterns of self harm are statistically correlated with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse disorders. The stresses of being a teenager—whether social, biological, emotional, or others—also contribute to making adolescents more likely to harm themselves than other age groups. Many individuals who have harmed themselves in the past later describe their reasons for doing so as guilt, shame, stress, or a need to establish a sense of “control.”

What is dual diagnosis?

Over the past few years, there has been an increased emphasis in the psychological community for engaging in a practice known as dual diagnosis. For the purpose of understanding teen psychology, it is important to recognize that patterns of self harm are often a symptom of a deeper psychological issue rather than a condition of their own. In order to adequately address a teenager’s urge to harm themselves and to prevent them from engaging in such behaviors in the future, it is very important to take a deeper look.

Dual diagnosis is an approach to teen psychology that recognizes there may be multiple relevant psychological issues affecting an individual at the same time. Instead of trying to address each of these issues individually and hope that they are all eventually resolved on their own, psychologists have found that taking a more comprehensive approach to treatment can be much more beneficial.

Often, the presence of one mental condition can exacerbate the presence of another. For example, a teenager who is suffering from depression will be statistically more likely to engage in patterns of substance abuse. At the same time, teenagers who engage in patterns of substance abuse are more likely to become chronically depressed. Because of this apparent “chicken or the egg” scenario, it is much more productive to focus on each of these relevant issues at the same time. Dual diagnosis can be especially necessary in situations—such as this one—where there are multiple relevant conditions that are likely to lead to patterns of self harm.

What are some of the most common treatments for teenagers who intentionally self harm?

Because patterns of self harm are much more common than many parents might initially assume— in fact, according to a Cornell University study, these may be seen in as many as 17.2% of adolescents—teen psychologists have worked diligently to develop new treatment methods over time. The treatment modality that works best for one individual will not necessarily be the one that makes the most sense for another. There are many different variables that will need to be considered, particularly with the importance of dual diagnosis in mind.

One of the most effective ways of addressing patterns of self harm is a treatment modality known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) CBT is one of the most well researched forms of teen psychology and has been used to treat an incredibly wide variety of conditions over time. The primary purpose of CBT is to identify negative or false beliefs that are held by the individual and to help them create a more positive and realistic framework. Beliefs that are fundamentally false—such as “Intentionally harming myself is in my best interest”—can be replaced with frameworks of thinking conducive to living a better life.

Individuals who engage in intense patterns of self harm or even attempt suicide may also benefit from a temporary stay at a Residential Treatment Center (RTC), such as Polaris. At a Residential Treatment Center, your teenager will be surrounded by a trained and qualified staff that can make sure they are safe and properly recovering. Being removed from the factors contributing to their self harm—such as negative environments, social situations, stress factors, and abuseable substances—can make it significantly easier for them to get better.

Lastly, a recent focus on experiential treatment has been proven to be exceptionally useful for those who are tempted to harm themselves. Instead of using self-inflicted pain as an outlet when stressful situations inevitably arise, turning to productive and creative outlets such as painting, music, poetry, journaling, and experiencing nature can be incredibly beneficial. Experiential treatment is often used alongside other treatment modalities in order to achieve the best results.


As a parent, one of the most difficult things you can experience is witnessing your teenager suddenly begin to harm themselves. Though patterns of self harm may seem to contradict most of our natural biological impulses, they are surprisingly common among teenagers of all genders, races, and socioeconomic situations. Fortunately, there are more treatment modalities currently available than ever before. If you can take the time to empathize with what your teenager may be experiencing, create a loving environment, and connect with the resources they need  you can help them overcome these harmful behaviors and begin living their best life.

If you think your adolescent is engaging in self-harm please call Polaris Teen Center at (844) 836-0222 to get them the help they need.

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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).