Self Harm Coping Strategies for Teens

Self-harm is a behavior teens many experience while doing everything in their power to hide it from their parents. This was the case of one 14-year old teen whose family recently moved to a new city. Jessica remained mostly quiet around her parents and frequently wore long sleeves to hide the cuts on her arms. However, as it got warmer and warmer, Jessica’s parents got curious about why she continued to wear long-sleeve shirts.

It might come as a great surprise to many parents when they discover that their teen has been cutting or engaging in self-harm. This is especially true if teens are otherwise doing relatively well in their lives. Teens might have friends, decent grades, and positive relationships with their teachers. Yet, if a teen is secretly struggling with strong emotions, self-harm may become an outlet for them to release emotional tension. At the same time, self-harm can accompany the presence of a mental illness. This article takes a closer look at what exactly self harm is and provides a list of self harm coping strategies to help teens manage their emotions.

What is Self Harm?

Self harm is an intent harm the body. Typically, self-harm is not an attempt to commit suicide, and is frequently referred to as non-suicidal self-injury. Instead, self-harm is an unhealthy means to end emotional pain. Forms of self-harm might include:

  • cutting
  • biting
  • scratching
  • burning
  • bruising the skin
  • excessive exercise
  • pinching oneself
  • excessive substance use
  • pulling hair

Why do Teens Self Harm?

In most cases, teens engage in one or more of the above behaviors to help find a way to ease their emotional pain. Reasons why teens might engage in self-harm include:

  • find relief when emotions are intense
  • calm or soothe oneself when emotions feel overwhelming
  • feel more alive when feeling disconnected or numb
  • release pent up anger

Furthermore, some types of mental illness tend to have self-harm as a symptom. These include:

  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Autism
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Psychosis/Schizophrenia

Recent Research on Teen Self-Harm


On May 4, 2017 HealthDay published an article indicating that there has been a renewed focus on teen self-harm because of the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”. However, the series is perhaps a reflection of a problem that has grown over the last decade. Researchers from Vanderbilt University found that of teens who were hospitalized in 2008, roughly .67 percent were engaged in self-harm or experienced suicidal thoughts. This increased to 1.79% of hospitalized teens in 2015. The point is that the number of teens who are participating in self harm have been increasing.

However, another study, published in April 2017 by Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, indicate that the use of certain self harm coping strategies can be a protective factor against teen self-harm. Close to 100 teens were surveyed on non-suicidal self-injury, emotional expression, and the use of coping tools. The results indicated that when teens used certain self harm coping strategies, they were more likely to manage their emotional expression.

Self Harm Coping Strategies

Coping may be defined as the intentional use of effort to manage a situation or problem. In the case of self-harm, the problem is often intense or overwhelming emotions. Self harm coping strategies, then, are those that help a teen manage their emotions or find a way to calm down when experiencing emotional stress. Types of self harm coping strategies to help manage emotions include:

Problem-Focused Coping: This is a strategy of being practical in response to a problem or situation. Finding ways to practically resolve a problem may lead to preventing any emotional stress. Problem focused coping tools may include:

  • time management
  • problem solving skills
  • seeking adult or professional support

Emotion-Focused Coping: This strategy attempts to reduce the negative emotional responses that seem to pile on top of experiences that are already emotionally overwhelming. For instance, if a teen were pushed by a peer in school and fell down, that teen might experience embarrassment, but also anxiety, depression, or anger. Not to mention additional stress if that teen needed to miss classes as a result of the experience. The point is that teens can use tools to help them manage and/or process emotions. These can include:

  • psychotherapy
  • journaling
  • mindfulness

Positive Reframing: This coping tool is trying to see things in a positive light. It may take conscious effort to look for the bright side of a difficult situation, but doing so may make a difference in the way a teen responds emotionally to a situation.

Seeking Support: Perhaps this strategy is obviously helpful, but some teens may not think to seek support. This is sometimes true for those teens who feel they have no one to turn to, or for those who might feel prideful about asking for help. Of course, some teens might feel embarrassed if having to admit a wrongdoing to an adult, especially a parent. Feelings of embarrassment, resentment, guilt, or anger might keep teens from seeking support from the adults in their lives.

Distraction: Occasionally, not thinking about or dwelling on a situation can be the best solution. Simply putting your mind on responsibilities or other more important aspects of life can help reduce the emotional reaction that can come with problems.

These are examples of self harm coping strategies teens can use to help manage challenging, intense, or overwhelming emotions.

Note to Parents

It’s important that parents do their best to find out why a teen might be harming themselves. Although a parent might want to jump to punishing a teen, providing consequences might only create more harm than good. In fact, it may only stir up more emotions for a teen. Instead, parents should attempt to find out why their teen might be engaged in self-harm. In fact, parents shouldn’t do this in a scolding, demanding way. Parents might instead use empathy, curiosity, and care when talking to their teen.

Of course, getting a mental health professional involved might also be the answer for some families who continue to struggle with self-harm. A mental health professional can help a teen utilize some of the coping strategies mentioned above. The therapeutic relationship might also help  your teen feel supported in whatever problem they may be facing. Lastly, seeking professional support, such as contacting a therapist, can also help bring relief to parents especially as the underlying emotional problem causing the self-harm gets resolved through therapy.

Related Articles

The Relationship Between Teen Anxiety and Self-Harm

Signs of a Teen Who is Cutting: What Parents Should Look For