1. Teens
  2. Health & wellbeing
  3. Mental health

Self-harm and teenagers

12-18 years

It isn’t uncommon for young people to self-harm. Sometimes self-harming is temporary – but it’s still a sign of deep distress. There can be lasting consequences if teenagers who are self-harming don’t get treatment. Counselling and psychological therapy can help them learn how to manage distressing feelings in the future.

About self-harm

Self-harm is when people deliberately hurt themselves as a way of coping with painful or strong emotions. It’s a way of trying to get control over, or relief from, those feelings. For some people, the attempt to control or stop feelings through self-harm is actually a way of trying to heal themselves. Other people self-harm so they can ‘feel something’ rather than feeling nothingness or emptiness.

Self-harm is generally a sign that a person is in deep distress.

Self-harm happens in different ways, some more obvious and serious than others. Forms of self-harm include:

  • cutting, scratching, carving, branding or marking the body
  • picking at scabs so they don’t heal
  • pulling hair
  • burning or grazing yourself
  • biting, bruising or hitting yourself
  • hitting a part of your body on something hard.

Teenagers most commonly self-harm by cutting, scratching or burning themselves.

Digital self-harm or self-cyberbullying is when teenagers create alternative online identities for themselves on social media sites and post cruel comments about themselves. The alternative identities might also get cruel comments from other people.

Some teenagers and young people deal with strong emotions in less obvious but still serious ways. These include binge-drinking, taking lots of drugs, having unsafe sex or starving themselves.

Self-harm: a serious issue

Self-harm needs to be taken seriously. Repeated self-harm can lead to serious injuries, scarring, medical conditions and accidental death, even if the young person isn’t trying to commit suicide.

Up to half of young people who self-harm have had serious thoughts of suicide. People who self-harm are at increased risk of attempting suicide. Some young people who self-harm attempt suicide because they feel bad about their self-harming behaviour. 

Signs of self-harm

Young people who self-harm sometimes try to hide it. They’re often ashamed of their behaviour and worry that people will be angry with them, reject them or not understand why they’re self-harming.

If you’re concerned that your child might be self-harming, here are some signs to watch out for.

Behaviour signs
Your child might:

  • have changes in her sleeping or eating patterns
  • lose interest in activities she usually enjoys
  • avoid activities like swimming, where her legs, arms or torso can be seen
  • stop seeing friends
  • skip school
  • have a drop in performance at school
  • hide clothes or wash them separately
  • wear clothes that cover her arms and legs even if it’s hot or the clothes aren’t her usual style
  • hide objects like razor blades, stencil knives, lighters and matches.

Emotional signs
Your child might:

  • have big changes in mood
  • stop caring about his appearance.

Physical signs
Your child might have injuries that she can’t or won’t explain.

Why teenagers self-harm

Teenagers self-harm for different reasons.

Self-harm might be something teenagers try once or twice out of curiosity, or it might be a sign of serious stress or distress. They might self-harm to:

  • release stress or strong feelings
  • distract themselves or escape from difficult situations or feelings – for example, after a relationship breakdown
  • show desperation or seek help
  • influence other people’s behaviour or ‘get back at’ other people
  • feel in control
  • feel ‘something’ – for example, some young people say they can’t feel emotions so they get ‘comfort’ from feeling physical pain
  • express feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem or self-hatred, or the belief that they can’t be helped.

Self-harming can become a habit or an addiction if young people rely on it to cope with emotional pain or distress. In this situation, the relief that people experience during or after self-harming reinforces the behaviour as a response to unbearable or difficult emotions. 

Sometimes teenagers ‘zone out’ and don’t feel pain when they’re self-harming.

If your child is self-harming, early intervention is important. If you step in early and encourage your child to get professional support, your child can learn positive ways of handling strong feelings. This can break the self-harm cycle and prevent future self-harming.

When your child is self-harming: what to do

If you find out your child is self-harming, you might feel afraid, guilty, shocked, panicked or even angry.

It can be hard to understand what’s going on and why – and your child might not have the words to tell you. But by staying calm, being respectful, not judging and actively listening, you might get some insight into your child’s thoughts and feelings and some ideas about how you can help.

The most important thing is letting your child know that strong feelings are normal – but they’re also hard to have. And when you’re in your teens, things can seem even harder.

If you find your child self-harming
If you find your child in the act of self-harming, avoid reacting with anger or threats. Saying that your child is just doing it for attention won’t help either. Most self-harm isn’t about getting attention.

It’s best to speak calmly, directly and without judgment. You might say something like, ‘I can see that you’re very upset. I hadn’t realised things had built up so much. You can talk to me about this. I won’t get angry at you’.

If your child seems to be ‘zoned out’ or unresponsive during the act – which is common – say your child’s name calmly and quietly and ask him to tell you where he is. Ask him if you can get help.

Provide first aid for any cuts or injuries in a calm way without fuss. Get medical attention for anything that looks serious. This can show your child that her body is important and worth caring for.

You might say something like, ‘I’d like to help you heal those cuts’ or ‘Let’s get some antiseptic to help those cuts heal quickly’.

Talking about self-harming
You can ask your child some questions about the self-harm, bearing in mind that people who self-harm might feel ashamed about it. That’s why it’s important to stay calm, not judge and listen silently without interrupting.

For example:

  • ‘I noticed the scars on your arm. I hope it’s OK to say that. Can you tell me about the times when you hurt yourself?’
  • ‘I can see that you’re very upset. You might be scared. I’m scared too. Together we can work this out.’
  • ‘The fact that you’re self-harming tells me you’re very upset. You might not like the fact that I’ve found out. I’m not going to ask you lots of questions but I do want to help – when you’re ready.’

Your child might be able to stop self-harming on his own, but support from a professional like a GP, counsellor or psychologist is important. You can encourage this by saying something like ‘I can see you’re really upset. It might help to talk to someone who knows more about this than I do’.

If you don’t know what to do, call your GP or local mental health service. Go to an emergency department if you think your child needs immediate care.

Although you can’t stop your child from self-harming, you can encourage her to get help.

If you think your child needs urgent medical attention – for example, because of serious wounds or an overdose, or because he’s feeling suicidal – call 000 for an ambulance or take your child to an emergency department.

Getting help for self-harming teenagers

Although most young people want their family’s help, professional assessment and treatment are very important if your child is self-harming. Professional help can also help you support your child at home.

A health professional might recommend different therapies depending on your child’s needs. Treatment might include psychological therapy or counselling and parent or family therapy.

Counselling can help teenagers understand why they’re self-harming, what triggers the self-harming and how to stop. It might include helping teenagers to understand and manage strong emotions, and learn more effective ways of managing and expressing strong thoughts and feelings.

Your child might need to try a few times, or try a few different therapies, before she can give up self-harm. Different therapies work for different people. You can support your child in trying different approaches until she finds something that works for her.

While your child is working with a health professional, you can also let your child know that it’s normal to reach out to friends or family for help when something upsetting happens.

If your child isn’t comfortable seeing a health professional, you can suggest he uses online or phone support services like Lifeline, Kids Helpline for Teens and eheadspace.

Looking after yourself

It can be hard to support a young person who self-harms, understand your own reactions and manage the needs of other family members. Here are a few ways to look after your own health and wellbeing as you go through this difficult experience:

  • Ask for help from family, friends or members of your support network. You can ask them to give you a call or send you a text, or to look after your other children while you take some time out for yourself.
  • Make some time every day to be on your own to read a book, watch a TV show or write about your thoughts and feelings. Start with five minutes at the end of the day if that’s all you have.
  • Make time for some physical activity – for example, walking, yoga or swimming. A bit of exercise can give you more energy for supporting your child.
  • Seek help for yourself if you’re distressed, or you just want to talk about the effect of your child’s behaviour on you. Your GP, a psychologist or a counsellor is a good person to talk to about this.

Looking after yourself can make it easier to support your child. It also gives your child an example of how it’s good to seek help when you’re distressed.

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Last updated or reviewed
02-12-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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