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According to recent studies, one in 12 teenagers struggles with self-injury. While this behavior can be scary and confusing to parents and loved ones, there are very real feelings behind the disorder and professional help is necessary.

Self-injury often serves as a mask for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. When teenagers lack healthy ways to manage intense feelings of anger and depression, they sometimes turn to self-injury to cope. It is not meant as a suicide attempt. Like other mental illness, self-injury can exist alone or as part of other conditions. This can make treatment complex and that much more important.

Most often, teens will cause injury to their arms, legs and front of the torso, but any area of the body may be used. People who self-injure may use more than one method to harm themselves including cutting, scratching, and burning. Signs to watch for include:

  • Scars
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability
  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness

Parents can play an important role in identifying self-injury symptoms and behavior. Studies show that friends of young adults are most likely to first suspect self-injurious behavior. Parents are the second most likely group to notice, however, they are more likely than anyone else to initiate a conversation about self-injury. Most importantly, parents are viewed by their children as the most helpful people to talk to about self-injury. Often, teens will keep their behavior a secret. Among those teens who never reached out for help, 65% wished their parents would start a conversation about it.

What can parents do for a teen who self-injures? How parents respond can have a big impact on their child’s recovery. It is always important to remember that professional treatment is necessary. In responding to self-injury, parents should:

  • Seek professional help as soon as possible, but never treat counseling as a punishment.
  • Approach their child in a calm and caring way.
  • Accept their child even though they do not accept his/her behavior. Avoid doing or saying anything to cause guilt or shame.
  • Let their child know how much they love him/her and never minimize their pain.
  • Not only express love or concern when their child self-injures (reinforces behavior)
  • Encourage their child to use healthier methods of managing emotion (reading, going for a walk, talking, listening to calming music, watching a funny movie, etc)
  • Allow their child to share their feelings in whatever way is comfortable (writing, drawing,painting, song-writing, etc.)

The most important thing a parent can do when suspecting self-injury is to take action. Providing a safe and supportive environment for their child to talk openly about their feelings is a positive first step. With treatment, recovery from self-injury is likely. Start a conversation today.

Adapted from, “See My Pain! Creative Strategies and Activities for Helping Young People Who Self- Injure.” Bowman, S. & Randall, K. (2006).

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