A Guide to Teen Self-Injury: Prevention, Signs, and Treatment

You have probably heard stories about teens who cut or burn themselves. Perhaps your teen has done it or has suspected that one of his or her friends was doing it. Teen self-injury is not very uncommon, approximately 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 7 boys will self-injure at some point. The vast majority of adults who cut, burn, or otherwise intentionally hurt themselves started when they were adolescents. The actual number of self-injurious teenagers is not known because one common feature of the behavior is hiding it. Many cases are likely never detected or reported. If you have teens in your life, it’s important to know about this behavior. Here are the answers to some common questions.

Why Do Teens Self-Injure?

Self-injury is often assumed to be cutting, but it can actually take many forms. Many teens will use their nails or a razor blade or other object to cut the skin on the arms, legs, or abdomen. Others will burn themselves. Self-injury can also include:

  • picking at or scratching the skin
  • biting or hitting themselves
  • pulling out their hair

Many teens who intentionally injure themselves do it because they have strong negative feelings that they don’t feel they can express. Stress and anxiety seem to be the most prevalent reasons. Frustration, anger, and sadness can also cause teens to want to self-injure. Sometimes a teen will do it once and will feel more at ease afterward; this is how the cycle begins. Some adolescents will harm themselves regularly and others will do so only in times of emotional crisis. About half of teens who self-injure have been sexually abused.

What Are the Signs of Teen Self-Injury?

Sometimes teen self-injury is obvious, but other times it’s hidden. Fresh cuts and scars are clear indicators that there could be a problem. So are scars that are not explained by a known injury. Many teens who cut will do so on the same part of their body over and over, so you might see a mix of old scars and new wounds. Burns, missing hair and broken bones are other signs.

Since many teens who self-mutilate want to keep their habit hidden, another sign is wearing clothing that covers a lot of skin even on hot days. They might refuse to go swimming or change in front of others. They might isolate themselves from others and want to spend a lot of time alone. Your teen might be carrying a sharp object regularly.

How is Teen Self-Injury Treated?

Self-injurious behavior becomes a habit and can be addictive. Since the object of the addiction (cutting) isn’t something that can be removed or avoided, it’s difficult to treat. When the behavior accompanies an anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, depression, or some other mental health condition, the underlying condition is treated. Sometimes that will help get the cutting or other self-mutilation under control.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a way to teach a teen how to better channel his or her stress and anxiety. If they have been abused, sexually or otherwise, therapy can help them accept the past and move forward toward the future. Learning how to relax with progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, or other relaxation techniques is another strategy that can help self-mutilators to stop.

Can Self-Injury Be Prevented?

Knowing the risk factors that might end up leading to teen self-injury is one way that it can be prevented.

Teens who have low self-esteem, who have been abused, who are dealing with other mental health issues, or who have a hard time handling relationships with others might be more at risk of developing this type of behavior. A teen who is very stressed and anxious might turn to cutting or other self-injurious habits to help them deal with overwhelming situations.

Being aware of the issue and talking to your teen can help. Get them counseling if they are dealing with problems that might lead to self-injuring. Medication might be necessary for depression or anxiety. Teach your teen how to calm down if they tend to get stressed out easily. Breathing exercises, yoga, or going for a walk can help. Help your teen get enough sleep; sleep deprivation can make any type of situation feel worse than it actually is.

Are Self-Injury and Suicide Linked?

It’s important to note that those who injure themselves typically are not suicidal. Those who attempt or commit suicide want to escape pain and end their lives. Those who turn to self-harming behavior often see it as a way to cope with life. This doesn’t mean, however, that those who self-injure aren’t at risk of harming themselves seriously (and possibly fatally).

Using dirty sharp objects to cut the skin, setting fires, breaking bones, and cutting themselves too deeply or over a major blood vessel could lead to severe injuries. Some people who self-injure will make themselves sick by ingesting non-food substances; this can also be deadly if taken too far.

Also, some teens who self-injure due to depression or other mental health issues might later become suicidal. Even though they’re not suicidal at this point, that doesn’t mean that they won’t have a different manifestation of their mental health condition later in life. It’s important to have your teen evaluated if you think they are dealing with a mental health condition that’s contributing to the cutting or another type of self-harm.

In Conclusion

Finding out that your teenager is hurting him- or herself can be a shock. Talk to your teen calmly and without judgment. Ask them how long it’s been going on and if they feel like they can stop. A visit to their primary care doctor is in order to screen for physical and mental health conditions that can be causing the feelings leading to the behavior. From there, the doctor can refer them to the proper mental health care specialist. Self-injury is something that can persist into adulthood, so prompt treatment is important.

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