When children and teens engage in self-harm, it is a symptom of extreme emotional distress, providing a coping mechanism to manage negative feelings. Sadly, children are very good at hiding signs of self-injury, which means parents often don’t realize their child has an issue. Here, we offer guidance on recognizing the signs of self-harm and what you can do to help your child find more effective ways to cope.

What Causes Child and Teen Self-Harming?

Self-harm is an unhealthy way children and teens deal with difficult emotions, providing a “release” of negative feelings such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Self-loathing

It provides a sense of control as well as a distraction that helps them avoid dealing with their circumstances. In some, it also serves as a form of self-punishment for what they perceive as flaws, bad behavior or personal faults, while in others it allows them to replace emotional pain, numbness, and emptiness with physical pain.

While self-harming can be temporary, it becomes dangerous when the behavior is compulsive and persists. Self-harming can occur at any age, but although child self-harming does occur, teen self-harming is more common.

Underlying causes of self-harm might include:

  • Social media issues
  • Bonding with peers who use self-harm
  • Peer pressure
  • Bullying
  • Traumatic events
  • Low self-esteem

Is Self-Harm a Mental Illness?

Self-harm is not a type of mental illness by itself, but it does indicate underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD (post-traumatic syndrome disorder), or substance abuse. The best way to address the self-harming behavior is to address the underlying issues that contribute to the behavior.

What are Symptoms of Teen Self-Harming?

  • Red flags your child or teen is self-harming include:
  • Unexplained cuts, scratches, bruises and wounds
  • Finding unexplained items in their room or school bag, such as broken glass, bottle caps, etc.
  • Wearing long clothes even when it’s hot
  • Impulsive and unstable behavior
  • Blood stains on their belongings
  • Locking themselves in their bedroom or the bathroom
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Relationships with friends and family members falling apart
  • Signs of isolation and withdrawal
  • Getting angry if you enter their room or the bathroom without knocking
  • They do not join in activities where their skin is revealed, such as trips to the beach, swimming, doctor’s appointments, etc.
  • Refusing to try on clothes in front of you or changing in weird places like closets

If you notice these signs in your teen, it is likely your teen is engaging in self-harming behaviors.

Different types of self-harm

Not all forms of self-harming are obvious. It’s important to recognize that there are different types of self-harm, each with its own signs. Different types of self-harm include:

  • Burns
  • Hitting or punching themselves
  • Pulling out their hair
  • Digital self-harm (posting mean, hurtful comments about themselves under a different name)
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive exercise/severe dieting
  • Picking physical fights
  • Head or body banging
  • Unsafe sex or other risky behaviors

What To Do If Your Child is Self-Harming

If you suspect your child or teen is self-harming, your priority should be to understand why this is happening and to get treatment as soon as possible. Educating yourself can help you cope with the confusion and shock of your child’s behavior and help you make informed decisions about your child’s care.

As a parent, some positive steps you can take to help your child include:

Confirm your suspicions

Calmly and gently ask your child if they are self-harming without being emotional or judgmental. You want to confirm your suspicions and try to find out why this is happening. You can share your feelings and make it clear they come from a place of concern and love.

Provide help

Although your child might deny self-harm or get angry, explain they are putting themselves in danger, and you want to help. Arrange a doctor’s appointment to discuss the issue and discover why this is happening. They will care for your child’s wounds and offer a safe place to discuss the issues. From there, they can help provide a mental health diagnosis and find the best treatments. Therapy and stress management are common, although residential care might be required when more complex mental health issues are present.

Create a safer environment

Create a safer environment for your child by removing hazards that enable them to self-harm. You should also have a safety plan in place that identifies emergencies and signs your child is in crisis. In cases where self-harm persists or presents the risk of suicide, residential care might be recommended.

Identify underlying causes or triggers

Therapy and care help identify underlying causes and possible triggers for self-harm. This might include social media and digital channels that increase feelings such as self-hate, envy, rejection, anger towards bullies, fear, etc. Revealing trauma or threats that are interfering with your child’s feeling of safety and security can also help provide appropriate treatment.

Commit to emotional support

You might unknowingly be contributing to issues that cause your child to self-harm. Understanding how you can change your own behavior and provide more trusted, dependable emotional support is the best way to help your child.

Your child’s well-being depends on proper support to manage self-harm, reduce dangers, treat underlying mental illness, and set them on the path to recovery.

Sometimes, self-harming behavior is only one aspect of a complicated situation. Residential treatment programs, like Telos, provide structured support and mental health resources around the clock. Residential treatment provides a safe space for teenagers who may be a danger to themselves or others.

If your teenager needs the structured care and support of a residential treatment center, please request more information on our program here. We are here to help.