How to Know if Your Teenager is Hurting Themselves


Parenting a child through self-harm can be a frightening and overwhelming ordeal. You may feel out of control and concerned about your teens well-being. Studies suggest that as many as one in five children aged 10-18 engage in intentional nonsuicidal self injury. How do you know the difference between typical teen angst and something more serious? In this blog, we will explore five signs that may indicate your adolescent is engaging in self-harming behaviors and discuss how to approach the situation with sensitivity and support. 


The Why


At the most basic level, teens self-harm to channel inner pain into external pain. It is a release. You can control external pain a lot easier than internal pain. Self-harm also floods the brain with endorphins which feel good in the moment and can offer a brief period of escapism. A lot of parents are concerned that if their children are self-harming then they must be suicidal. Most teenagers who are self-harming are not looking to kill themselves. However, studies show that if self-injury continues to go on for a long period of time, those adolescents have a higher likelihood of developing suicidal ideation. Ultimately self-harm is a coping mechanism for intense emotional pain, sadness, anger, or stress. 


The How


While most episodes of self-harm are done in private, they often leave their mark on the skin of the individual. Typical examples of self-harm include:


  1. Cutting, scratching, or stabbing oneself with a sharp object
  2. Burning oneself with matches, lighters, or a heated object 
  3. Carving words or symbols into the skin with a knife or sharpened object
  4. Self-hitting, punching, and/or biting
  5. Piercing the skin with sharpened objects
  6. Inserting objects under the skin


The most common places teens self-harm is on their legs, arms, chest, and belly. 


Signs to Watch For


  1. Unexplained Cuts, Bruises, or Wounds:
    If you notice a cut, bruise, or other physical injury and your teen can’t give you a reasonable explanation for it, you may want to take note. One of the most common signs of self-harm is unexplainable injuries. Keep an eye out for injuries that don’t appear to heal, seem out of place, or lack a clear explanation. 

  2. Wearing Concealing Clothing, Even in Warm Weather:
    Most adolescents who are engaged in self-harm aren’t looking to advertise this fact. They may go to great lengths to hide their self-inflicted wounds. Long sleeves and long pants, especially during warmer weather can be a red flag. Excessive jewelry or bracelets can be used to hide scars on the arms and wrists. If you notice that your teen suddenly becomes excessively secretive about their appearance, it’s important to create a safe space to openly talk about your concerns and their well-being. 

  3. Social Withdrawal & Isolation:
    While not exclusive to self-harm, social withdrawal is often a symptom of emotional struggle. Have you noticed your son or daughter isolating from friends and family? It may be an indicator that they are dealing with an internal struggle. Keep an eye on changes in their social behavior. Engage in empathetic conversations to understand what may be causing the withdrawal.

  4. Emotional Instability & Mood Swings:
    Teenagers can be moody. It’s part of the territory. Extreme emotional instability, however, is a red flag. If your child is experiencing intense mood swings, shows signs of depression or anxiety, or has difficulty regulating emotions, address it swiftly. Emotional instability can be both a cause and a result of self-harming behaviors.

  5. Evidence of Self-Harm Tools:
    There’s typically no need for a teenager to be in possession of razors, lighters, or sharp objects. All can be used for self-harm so keep an eye out for any of these things in your teenagers bedroom or possessions. 


What To Do


If you are concerned about your child self-harming or know they already have, talk with a healthcare professional immediately. If your teenager is hurting themselves, it is a sign of a bigger mental or emotional issue. Don’t yell or punish your child for their behavior. Approach them with love, understanding, and a desire to help. Talk with their pediatrician or a mental health professional and ask for resources on next steps. Provide an environment at home where your child can openly express their emotions and thoughts without fear of judgment or reprisal. 

For resources, questions, concerns, or next steps, call Sustain Recovery today. We’ve been where you are. We know the fear, guilt, and worry about the future well-being of your child. We're here to help. Call today.