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How to know if your teen is self-harming and how to address it

How to know if your teen is self-harming and how to address it

The prevalence of self-harm among teenagers is a growing concern for parents, guardians and other caregivers. About 17% of teenagers engage in self-harm at least once, according to the American Psychological Association.
As parents, seeing your child in pain is a challenging experience, underscoring the importance of being well-prepared to navigate this sensitive topic with your child.

Elizabeth Dosoretz, LCSW

What is self-harm?
Academic stress, cyberbullying, social media overuse, economic pressures on the family and more are just a few of the factors to consider as to why your teen may be self-harming. Formally called “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI) self-harming is the act of deliberately inflicting injury to oneself through methods such as cutting, scratching, hitting, burning or biting.

It’s a harmful coping mechanism for those facing emotional distress, sadness, anger, stress or trauma. Self-harm is often followed by feelings of shame or guilt and the return of painful emotions. While self-harm may not necessarily be intended as a suicide attempt, it can lead to more serious risks.

Self-harm often starts in the preteen or early teen years. Child and Adolescent Mental Health reports family problems, school or job challenges and struggling relationships with friends as contributing factors to those who have self-harmed.

Self-harm warning signs
Parents should remain aware of warning signs that might indicate that your child is self-harming. For example:

• Self-harm leaves marks. Multiple similar marks on your teen’s skin — especially those near one another and/or those without a clear explanation.

• Teens may attempt to hide 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.

• 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.

• Sometimes, self-harm begins after a significant experience or event, like rejection from a significant other, arguments with friends or an act of bullying that produces significant distress.

• Take notice if your teen is suddenly interested in peers who engage in this behavior or starts watching videos or reading books about self-harm online.

• 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.

What to do as a parent
Parents often grapple with the distressing realization or suspicion that their child might be engaging in self-harm. Understanding how to approach and support your child during such a challenging time can feel overwhelming. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to know that there are effective ways to help your child navigate through this difficult period.

• Approach the matter with empathy and compassion. It’s a sign that your child is struggling with deep emotional pain and doesn’t have healthier coping strategies in place. Maintaining open, non-judgmental communication is crucial.

• Seeking professional help is an essential step. Mental health professionals, particularly those specializing in adolescent psychology, can provide the necessary guidance and intervention.

See Also

• Education is another key aspect. As a parent, learning about self-harm, its triggers and its underlying psychological foundations can equip you with the knowledge to understand, empathize with and support your child.

• Ensuring your child’s safety is a priority. This might mean removing potentially harmful objects from their environment and being vigilant about your child’s emotional and physical well-being. Encouraging your child to build a network of support, including trusted friends, family members or even support groups, can also provide them with additional emotional outlets.

• Introducing your child to healthy coping strategies is another vital step. Through therapy, they can learn techniques for emotional regulation, stress management and constructive problem-solving.
It’s important to avoid blaming or shaming your child for their self-harming behavior. Focus instead on understanding, supporting and empowering them to seek healthier ways to cope with their emotions.

Facing the reality that your child might be self-harming is undoubtedly challenging, but with a compassionate approach, open communication and professional mental health support, you can guide your child toward healing and healthier coping strategies. Remember, you’re not alone on this journey, and help is available.

About the Author
Elizabeth Dosoretz, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and mother of three. Her personal journey through the challenges of postpartum depression inspired her to establish Elite DNA Behavioral Health in 2013 with a goal to provide accessible, affordable mental health care to everyone. Ten years later, Elite DNA has become one of the largest mental health providers in the state, providing in-person and virtual behavioral health services to children, adolescents and adults at more than 30 locations across Florida. For more information, visit


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