*PLEASE NOTE: This article includes a discussion of self-harm and suicide. If you or someone you know is in distress, please call 911 or call or text the suicide helpline at 988.

Many of us have experienced intense emotional pain, the kind that radiates throughout our bodies and makes us want to hide from the world. Teenagers experience that too, and it can come from all sides – friends, family, relationships, social media, past traumas, bullying, or sexual identity struggles.  

It’s not an easy time to be a teenager. 

Unfortunately, the pain they feel can seem unbearable, causing them to turn to unhealthy ways of coping, like self-harm. They may cut or burn themselves, punch things or themselves, or do anything else that could cause self-injury.  

It’s important to understand that self-harm in teenagers does not mean they are trying to take their own life. However, studies have shown that teens who self-harm are at a higher risk of suicide if they don’t get the help they need as soon as possible. 

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What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is when someone intentionally hurts themselves as a way of coping with negative feelings, painful memories, challenging situations, anger, or intense emotional pain. People of any age could inflict self-harm on themselves. However, it is more common among adolescents, teens, and young adults. Studies show that 17% of adolescents and teens and 15% of college students have engaged in self-harm. 

Self-harm in teenagers

Self-harm in teenagers itself is not a mental health disorder, but it could indicate underlying psychological conditions that require professional treatment as soon as possible. With that said, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does list nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSID) as a disorder requiring further study. Additionally, self-harming behaviors in teens can co-occur with other issues like substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, or anxiety. 

Self-harm in teenagers often begins around age 13 when children are going through a great deal of physical, social, and mental changes and often face peer pressure, loneliness, and conflicts with friends and family.

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Who is At Risk For Self-Harming Behaviors?

As stated earlier, everyone is susceptible to self-harm at any age. However, there are potential risk factors to look out for, especially considering teenagers and self-harm. Here are some of the most common risk factors that could increase the likelihood of a teen or adolescent engaging in self-harming behaviors:

  • Mental health issues: Teens who deal with mental health concerns like depression, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, or borderline personality disorder are at a higher risk for self-harming behaviors. If a child or teen is highly self-critical, they are also at elevated risk. 
  • Life struggles: If your child is being bullied, bullying others, is the victim of abuse, has experienced a traumatic event, or has experienced rejection from family or friends due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, they have an increased risk of self-harm.
  • Alcohol or drug use: Using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with challenging emotional issues can lead to increased feelings of loneliness, depression, low self-esteem, and feeling worthless. In turn, this increases their chances of self-harm.
  • Friends who self-harm: Teens can be easily influenced by friends. So, if they have friends in their lives who self-harm, it may give them ideas. 

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So What Are Some Warning Signs of Self-Harm in Teens?

Recognizing the warning signs of self-harm can, unfortunately, be tricky since many teens don’t want their parents to know. However, there are some things you can look for in your adolescent or teen that may indicate they are self-harming. 

  • frequent cuts, bruises, burns, or even bite marks
  • often claiming to have “accidentally” hurt themselves in some way when you question them
  • scars, often appearing in patterns
  • difficulty in relationships with friends or significant others
  • sudden, intense, and unexpected outbursts and impulsive behavior
  • speaking about feeling hopeless or worthless
  • wearing long sleeves and/or pants to hide their self-inflicted wounds, even in warm weather
  • keeping sharp objects on hand 
  • isolation from friends, family, and social activities

We understand it’s challenging to question your child about the warning signs of self-harm – not just in your conversations, but it can be emotional for you, too. But it’s crucial not to ignore signs and to notice changes in your teens’ emotional and behavioral changes. Self-harming is a sign of internal emotional struggles, and it’s vital to address them with the help of a professional as soon as possible. 

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How to Help Your Teen Who is Self-Harming

Parenting is hard enough. But seeing your child in emotional (and physical) pain can be overwhelming and, frankly, painful to you, too. The important thing is to recognize the warning signs of self-harm and do something about it.  Here are some helpful tips for helping your child or teenager struggling with self-harming behaviors. 

  • Accept and process your feelings. Yes, it’s challenging to discover that your child is self-harming. And it can be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction that includes anger, shock, and confusion. But before you talk to your child about it, take some time to process your emotions. Talk to a trusted friend or family member, research online for advice, go for a walk to clear your mind and then talk to your child. 
How to Help Your Teen Who is Self-Harming
  • Create a safe space for your teen. It’s imperative that your child feels safe when you initiate the conversation about self-harm. Make sure you speak with them in a private location where they feel comfortable. To effectively create a safe space, make sure you don’t: 
    • get distracted (put your phone down – give them your full attention)
    • judge or mock their feelings, even if you don’t understand where they are coming from
    • make yourself the center of the conversation
    • yell or raise your voice 
    • make threats or hold them to ultimatums
  • Tell them you’re concerned – gently and carefully. It can be challenging to remain calm, but your child does not want to feel judged or provoked. They want to feel love and compassion. Gently express your concern for them and let them know you love them. Do what you can not to center the conversation about how it makes you feel. Ask them about their feelings.
  • Listen actively. Listening to what your child has to say is crucial without interjecting constantly. Pay attention to what they are saying to you without judgment. It will be hard to hear what they have to say, but it’s essential to listen.

Get them help. One of the most important things to do to help your adolescent or teen is to get them the help they need as quickly as possible. They are self-harming because they are in emotional pain and need someone experienced to help them process their emotions and learn healthier coping skills.

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Trust BOLD Health for Quality, Compassionate Teen and Child Psychiatry in San Diego

We’ve said it a few times, but we’ll say it again. Getting your child in to see a teen psychiatrist in San Diego as soon as possible is vital. While your child may not initially desire to take self-harm to the next level, they eventually might if they don’t get the help they need. 

At BOLD Health, we can provide you and your child a safe space to process and work through your challenges. We offer high-quality teen and child psychiatry in San Diego and beyond to help children, adolescents, and teens navigate whatever struggles they endure. 

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Your child will receive a comprehensive initial evaluation, delivered with expert, compassionate, and understanding care by our teen psychiatrist in San Diego, Dr. Theodore Germanos and Dr Kendra Ferguson, and our teen therapist, Kim Tran. Depending on your child’s needs, their mental health treatment plan may include:

  • individual therapy
  • group therapy
  • family therapy
  • medication management 
  • intensive outpatient program (IOP in San Diego)

Rest assured, we’re in this with you. We’ll walk with you through the entire process to help your teen overcome their mental health issues so they can achieve their full potential and live the life they deserve. 

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