By Family Forward Counseling

Understanding Self-Harm in Teenagers

Self-Harm and Teens: Recognizing Signs and Providing Compassionate Support.

Understanding Self-Harm in Teenagers

Understanding Self-Harm in Teenagers: Signs, Support, and Resources

Self-harm is a deeply concerning issue that affects many teenagers around the world. As a parent, caregiver, or concerned friend, it's crucial to be informed about self-harm, recognize the signs, and offer support to those who may be struggling. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore what self-harm is, why teenagers engage in it, how to recognize the signs, and provide resources to help teenagers and their loved ones seek professional assistance and healing.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm, often referred to as self-injury or self-mutilation, is the deliberate act of causing harm to one's own body as a way to cope with emotional pain, stress, or overwhelming feelings. It is not a suicide attempt, although it can be a cry for help and a sign of significant emotional distress. Self-harm can take various forms, including:

  1. Cutting: Using sharp objects to create cuts on the skin.
  2. Burning: Applying heat or flames to the skin.
  3. Biting or hitting: Physically harming oneself by biting or hitting the body.
  4. Hair pulling: Pulling out one's hair, often in response to anxiety or tension (known as trichotillomania).
  5. Scratching: Repeatedly scratching the skin to the point of bleeding.
  6. Interference with wound healing: Picking at scabs or wounds to prevent them from healing properly.

Why Do Teenagers Engage in Self-Harm?

Teenagers may turn to self-harm as a way to cope with intense emotional pain or distress for various reasons:

  1. Emotional Release: Self-harm can provide temporary relief from overwhelming emotions, allowing teenagers to regain a sense of control.
  2. Distraction: The physical pain from self-harm can act as a distraction from emotional pain, temporarily shifting the focus.
  3. Communication: Some teenagers use self-harm as a way to communicate their emotional pain to others when they find it difficult to express their feelings verbally.
  4. Coping Mechanism: Self-harm may serve as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
  5. Regulating Emotions: For some teenagers, self-harm provides a way to regulate their emotions and feel a sense of calmness or relief.

Recognizing Signs of Self-Harm in Teenagers

Recognizing signs of self-harm in teenagers is crucial for early intervention and support. It's essential to approach this topic with sensitivity and empathy. Here are some signs that a teenager may be engaging in self-harm:

  1. Unexplained Cuts, Burns, or Bruises: Notice any unexplained injuries, especially in areas typically hidden by clothing, such as the upper arms, thighs, or wrists.
  2. Wearing Concealing Clothing: Teenagers who self-harm may try to hide their injuries by wearing long sleeves, even in warm weather.
  3. Frequent Isolation: A sudden withdrawal from social activities or a decrease in contact with friends and family may be a sign of self-harm.
  4. Evidence of Self-Harm Tools: Look for items like razors, knives, or matches that may be used for self-harm. These tools may be hidden in their belongings.
  5. Bloodstained Tissues or Clothing: The presence of blood on tissues or clothing could be indicative of self-harm.
  6. Changes in Behavior or Mood: Pay attention to significant shifts in behavior, such as increased irritability, depression, or mood swings.
  7. Expressing Feelings of Hopelessness: Teenagers who self-harm may express feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or a desire to escape their emotional pain.
  8. Scarring or Fresh Wounds: Scars from previous self-harm incidents or fresh wounds are clear indicators of self-harm behavior.
  9. Online Communities: Some teenagers may share their self-harm experiences or seek support in online communities or social media platforms. Monitor their online activity if necessary.

How to Approach and Support a Teenager Who Self-Harms

Approaching a teenager who self-harms requires sensitivity, compassion, and open communication. Here are some steps to consider when providing support:

1. Choose the Right Time and Place

Find a quiet, private space where you can talk without distractions. Choose a time when both you and the teenager are calm and not rushed.

2. Be Non-Judgmental and Compassionate

Approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. Avoid judgmental or confrontational language. Express concern and a willingness to listen.

3. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Encourage the teenager to share their feelings and experiences by asking open-ended questions such as, "Can you tell me what's been going on?" or "How can I support you?"

4. Listen Actively

Listen without interrupting or providing immediate solutions. Let them express themselves fully, and validate their feelings.

5. Express Your Concern

Let the teenager know that you are concerned about their well-being and that you care about their safety and happiness.

6. Avoid Ultimatums

Avoid issuing ultimatums or threats, as this can increase feelings of shame and guilt. Instead, focus on offering support and assistance.

7. Encourage Professional Help

Gently suggest seeking professional help, such as a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist, who can provide specialized guidance and treatment for underlying emotional issues.

8. Remove Harmful Objects

If there are harmful objects or tools related to self-harm in the teenager's possession, calmly and respectfully ask them to give these items to you for safekeeping.

9. Maintain Ongoing Support

Offer continuous support and let the teenager know that you are there for them throughout their journey toward healing.

10. Educate Yourself

Take the time to educate yourself about self-harm and its underlying causes. This knowledge will help you better understand what the teenager is going through.

Professional Help and Resources

Self-harm is a complex issue often linked to underlying mental health concerns. Seeking professional help is essential for addressing these underlying issues and providing effective treatment. Here are some resources and avenues for professional assistance:

1. Mental Health Professionals: Encourage the teenager to see a mental health professional, such as a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist, who specializes in self-harm and related issues.

2. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: In the United States, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate assistance and guidance.

3. Crisis Text Line: Teens can text "HOME" to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor via text message.

4. Online Resources: Websites like "To Write Love on Her Arms" and "Self-Injury Outreach & Support" offer information, resources, and online communities for those struggling with self-harm.

5. Support Groups: Local or online support groups can provide a sense of community and shared experiences. Look for groups that focus on self-harm recovery.

6. Emergency Services: If you believe a teenager is in immediate danger or has severely self-harmed, do not hesitate to call emergency services for assistance.


Self-harm is a concerning issue that requires understanding, empathy, and appropriate support. As a parent, caregiver, or concerned friend, recognizing the signs and approaching the teenager with compassion is the first step in helping them seek professional assistance and embark on the path to healing.

Remember that self-harm is a complex behavior often linked to underlying emotional distress, so professional intervention is crucial. By offering non-judgmental support and connecting teenagers with the appropriate resources, you can play a significant role in their journey towards recovery and improved mental health.

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