August 28, 2022

Signs Your Teenager Might Be Self-Harming

Cutting and other forms of self-injury are on the rise among teens

Teen sitting alone on staircase

The thought of your child intentionally hurting themselves is devastating and unthinkable. But with self-harm on the rise in teens, it’s important for the adults who love them to know about this sign of psychological distress.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Self-harm is sometimes referred to as “cutting,” but it can take other forms, too, like hair-pulling, scratching and picking at skin. But no matter how it manifests, it’s important that your teen gets the help they need.

Psychologist Kristen Eastman, PsyD, explains what your teen may be experiencing, what signs to look for and what else you need to know to help.

Why teens self-harm

There are many reasons why someone may self-harm, but in short, it’s a misguided way of trying to cope with intense emotions.

“Those who self-harm often experience it as a form of emotional release or a distraction from emotional pain,” Dr. Eastman explains. “Or some may feel emotionally numb and view self-harm as the only way they can feel anything.”

Self-harm can also be a form of communication — a cry for help in the hopes that others will see their pain.

Self-harm is on the rise

An estimated 15% to 20% of teens self-harm, formally called “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI) — injuring oneself while specifically not attempting suicide. But research shows that young people who self-harm are 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide in the future than their peers who have never engaged in self-harm.

And both are on the rise. “Self-injury and suicide rates have been increasing among adolescents since 2009,” Dr. Eastman says.

Nobody knows for sure why this is, but there are likely a number of contributing factors. Some possible explanations include:

Advertisement

It’s also possible that teenagers are simply reporting self-harm more often than they used to.

Warning signs of cutting and other forms of self-harm

Dr. Eastman urges parents to watch out for the following behaviors and signs:

1. Injuries

Self-harm leaves marks. Multiple similar marks on your teen’s skin — especially those in close proximity to one another and/or those without a clear explanation — could indicate self-harm, like from:

2. Hiding their skin

Teens may attempt to conceal their injuries by refusing to expose certain body parts or covering up in other ways that seem suspicious — like wearing long-sleeved shirts on hot days or wearing an arm full of bracelets that cover their skin.

3. Changes in mood

Stress, anxiety and depression can all cause teens to feel out of control or at a loss for how to cope with these emotions, which can lead to self-harming behaviors.

4. A trigger event

“Sometimes, self-harm begins after a significant experience or event,” Dr. Eastman says, like rejection from a significant other, arguments with friends, an act of bullying or fallout with a peer group that produces significant distress.

5. A fascination with self-harm

Take heed if your teen takes a sudden or new interest in peers who engage in this behavior or starts watching videos or reading books about self-harm online.

6. Isolation

If your teen is shutting themselves off from family and friends and is spending more time alone than seems typical for them, this could indicate depression and, in turn, self-harm.

Advertisement

Helping teens who are cutting

If you suspect that your teen is self-harming, or if they tell you they are, it’s important not to panic.

What your teen needs now is compassion — and help. Validate their emotions and let them know you understand that they’re feeling overwhelmed. But make it clear that there are better ways to deal with it and you’ll help them figure them out.

The next step is to get your teen some professional help. Look for a mental health professional who has experience treating adolescents who self-harm. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your pediatrician first.

“It’s distressing to learn that your child has been self-harming,” Dr. Eastman says. “But with your support and a professional’s help, your teen can learn healthier ways of coping with tough emotions.”

To learn more about this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “The Teen Mental Health Crisis.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.

Related Articles

doctor speaking with middle-age woman
February 21, 2024
Does Your Health Determine Menopause Age?

Reaching menopause very early raises your risk of certain health conditions

Caregiver and elderly male with head bent down
February 2, 2024
After Your Stroke: How To Handle 14 Common Complications

Your age, the type of stroke you had, the cause and the location can all impact your recovery

Male with eyes closed sitting hunched over, pinching area between their eyes
January 29, 2024
Headache and Fatigue: 11 Possible Causes That Can Trigger Both

Many factors, like dehydration, a cold or even your medication, can result in these common symptoms

Child using smartphone and with social media and texts bubbles around him
January 15, 2024
How Social Media Can Negatively Affect Your Child

Too much screen time and unrealistic expectations and perceptions and can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression

Person huddled on floor with arms around knees with thought bubbles above head
January 3, 2024
Anxiety vs. Depression: Which Do I Have (or Is It Both)?

Although different conditons, they can occur together or cause one another

Overhead view, female and male in kitchen preparing food, christmas tree and baking pans
December 18, 2023
How To Avoid Hometown Anxiety and Holiday Regression

Stay merry and bright by knowing your triggers and journaling throughout your visit

Person in foreground hunched over in sadness as family decorates holiday tree in background
December 12, 2023
How To Handle Holiday Depression When It Hits Home

The holidays can be hard on your mental health, but there are ways to cope

Someone comforting a depressed person
September 20, 2023
What Does Depression Feel Like?

More than just ‘deep sadness,’ this complex condition is often a whole-body experience

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad