Self-Harm: Why Do Teenagers Do It?

Self-harm is when an individual does something to harm themselves without the intention of attempting suicide. In teenagers, it often manifests as cutting or occasionally burning. It is usually a compulsive behavior; that means that once teens start self-harming, they tend to have trouble stopping. As a parent, you are understandably overwhelmed and worried if you have evidence or a suspicion that your child is cutting or otherwise harming him- or herself. Read on to find out why teens self-harm, the dangers of self-harm, and how you can help your adolescent.


It’s Not About Suicide

The first concern that many parents have about self-harm is that it might lead to suicide. The good news is that in most cases, teens who are cutting or otherwise hurting themselves are not suicidal. While some teens who have suicidal tendencies will hurt themselves, that type of behavior is usually something risky with the potential of creating great damage. For example, a suicidal teen might jump off the roof of a single-story home or might race on the highway. Both of these types of “self-harm” can lead to major injury up to and including death.

The types of self-harm that most teens with the behavior cause are minor, superficial wounds that are not typically a threat to their lives. Of course, the cutting or burning can go too far and that can cause serious complications, but for the most part, cutting is not about suicide.


Mental Health Issues May Be Involved

Many teens who self-harm have diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions. These can range from depression to anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder. They might socially isolate themselves. Once the teen starts self-injuring, they might develop mental health issues that they hadn’t previously had. They are often ashamed of their behavior, which can lead to social anxiety, general anxiety, and depression. They can also become addicted to the behavior itself and seek out times they can self-injure in an effort to calm down or get a rush of endorphins.


It Can Be a Way to Dull Pain

By causing physical pain, many teens find that self-harm helps them to avoid emotional pain. Some teens cut or burn themselves as a way of feeling more alive. This can be the case if the individual has depression or is struggling with apathy or simply not caring about anything.

Teens who are struggling with traumatic or upsetting events might also turn toward self-injury as a way to cope. In this sense, it becomes a type of self-medicating. Rather than focusing on the fact that they had an abusive childhood or that their dog died, they can focus on the physical pain caused by cutting. Since injuries cause the brain to release feel-good chemicals, they get a wave of endorphins without taking drugs or going for a run.

Some teens also use self-harm as a way to punish themselves. If your teen is upset about failing a test or picking a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend, they might punish themselves by cutting. This way, they turn their attention to the physical pain rather than the pain of their own disappointment in themselves.


Who Is at Higher Risk of Self-Harm?

Anyone of any age can self-harm, but young teenagers are the ones who most often start the behavior. As the hormones of puberty kick in and they are suddenly responsible for achieving more in school and in their sports and activities, many teens find it hard to cope and turn to ways to feel better. While self-injury is not a healthy coping mechanism, it can be attractive to teenagers who don’t have a better way of helping themselves to feel better.

It was once believed that girls are more likely than boys to self-harm, but more recent studies have shown this not to be the case. Girls are more likely to cut, however, and boys are more likely to burn themselves. Also, those with a negative body image are more likely to self-harm than those with a positive body image.


Know the Signs of Cutting

A teen who is cutting or burning him- or herself is not likely to advertise it to the world. Instead, you’ll often find that such teens wear long sleeves and long pants in an effort to hide their scars. Some of the signs that your child might be injuring him- or herself include

  • Wearing long sleeves in the summer
  • Refusing to wear a bathing suit or go swimming
  • Giving odd reasons for injuries that you do see
  • Hiding or washing their own laundry
  • Appetite or sleep changes


What Are the Dangers of Self-Harm?

There are several dangers, some physical and some not physical, that accompany self-injury. One is, of course, the risk of becoming seriously injured. A teen could nick a large blood vessel and cause a lot of bleeding, for example. Or a cut or burn could become infected and, if it isn’t treated, that infection can spread and create serious illness.

Socially, self-harm can cause isolation and social anxiety. Adolescents generally don’t want to be seen as sick or different and will feel ashamed of their self-harm. This can cause them to not want to spend time with friends. They might also develop mental health issues such as anxiety disorder or depression.


Get Help for Your Teen

Treating self-harm is not easy. Most teens do outgrow the behavior within five years, but treatment is needed in the meantime. Dialectical behavioral therapy is one type of treatment that has shown some promise, but it is not right for all teens who self-injure. Teens who have outgrown the behavior or who have only done it a few times can benefit from counseling to help them address the issues leading up to it and to help them move on with their lives. It is also a good idea to assess whether the teen is or was having suicidal ideation.

If your teen is self-injuring, contact his or her primary care doctor so you can get a referral to the specialist that can help your child.