What Parents Need to Know about Teenage Self-Injury

Jan 17, 2021

I have worked with many teens who have engaged in self-injurious behavior and understand how scary this can be for parents. It is hard to fathom why someone would intentionally cut, burn, harm, scar, and/or mutilate themselves. In this blog post, I will clarify why teens (and adults) engaged in self-injury as well as providing suggestions for how parents can respond.


There is sometimes the perception that when teenagers injure themselves, they do it because they are seeking attention, or they are doing it because their peers are doing it. While I have seen this occur occasionally, this is not the explanation for most instances of teenage self-injury. Some teens may show their scars as a cry for help, however, the majority of teens I have worked with who self-injure do so in places that are covered with clothing. They are ashamed of their behavior and try to keep it a secret.


So why do people injure themselves? When teens (or adults) engage in self-injurious behaviors, they are looking for an escape from emotional pain. They are trying to deal with very difficult feelings and use cutting, burning, or other self-injurious behaviors as a coping mechanism to do so. Self-injury gives them a release from the challenging feelings that they are struggling to manage effectively.


Their goal is to get relief from their emotional pain which feels out of control. When they inflict pain upon themselves, they feel more in control and are able to get relief from the emotional pain because they are distracted by the physical pain. This may sound illogical to someone who has not been in this situation. As a reminder, teens are dealing with lots of pressure and confusion in their lives. Their bodies are changing rapidly, their minds are still developing, they are under a lot of pressure to fit in, to perform in school or other activities, and they often don’t even understand why they are feeling so anxious, stressed out, emotional, and confused. In addition, some teens have experienced traumatic events in their lives that intensify everything else they are experiencing.


Just as some teens (and adults) eat, drink, or use drugs to gain moments of escape from difficult feelings, some turn to self-injury for relief. As I mentioned, when they inflict physical pain on themselves, it distracts them from the emotional pain they are experiencing. While they are able to get some temporary relief, as is the case with binge eating, drinking, and drugging, they often feel immense guilt and shame after the fact. They feel worse when seeing their scars and emotionally beat themselves up for the damage they have done to their bodies. This intensifies their difficult feelings, and the self-injurious behavior can worsen. It is the only means they have figured out for dealing with their emotional pain; however, it often also results in the pain intensifying.


Many people mistakenly think that self-injury is the same as suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. While there can be some overlap, they are not the same. With suicidal ideation, individuals begin to see death as the only way to escape the emotional pain they are experiencing. They don’t believe their suffering will ever end unless they are dead. They have started to or have completely lost hope that they will feel better. With self-injury the goal is not to die, it is to get relief from intense emotions.


I mentioned that there was some overlap between self-injury and suicidal ideation and there is. Someone who is no longer feeling any emotional relief from self-injury, or who starts to feel incredible shame about how they have scarred their body, can become suicidal. In addition, someone with suicidal ideation may try self-injury and find that they are able to get some relief from their emotional pain.


Tips for parents who have concerns that their child is self-injuring.

  1. Don’t minimize or dismiss the behavior. If you have any suspicion that your teen is self-injuring, follow your instinct. It is scary and will bring up a lot of emotions for you, as the parent, however, addressing it is the only way you will be able to help them.


  1. Remain calm in front of your teen. This will be challenging. You may feel scared, angry, hurt, confused, and embarrassed when learning about their self-injury. This is normal and completely understandable. You should make sure you have the support you need to deal with these challenging emotions by talking to a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or coach.


  1. Talk to your teen. Address it head on in a supportive, non-judgmental way. Let them know that you have concerns that they are hurting themselves and that you want to help them. Even if they become angry, emotional, or defensive, don’t blame them or shame them. Be curious and really work to understand what they are experiencing. It will be a hard conversation and you may hear things you don’t want to; however, it is the first step in getting them to consider alternatives.


  1. Validate your teen. You will likely not fully understand what your teen is experiencing or why they turned to self-injury as a way of managing their feelings and that is okay. The goal is not for you to fully understand but to help them feel supported so that they can understand and start to see that there are other options. Validating your teen means showing them that you believe their experience and that you are not judging them.


  1. Don’t minimize their experience. When your teen is explaining what led them to self-injury, you may not understand. It may sound illogical or like they are blowing things out of proportion. You may want to jump in and offer them suggestion, solutions, or tell them that they should not be worrying about some of the things they are worrying about. This is normal. You are their parent, and you don’t want to see them suffering. You want to make things better as soon as possible because you love them, however, this will likely result in their feeling more shame and like you will never understand. Validating them will help them be willing to open up to you.


  1. Don’t be too reactive. This will be challenging. Many parents I have worked wanted to immediately hide any sharp objects and keep their teen in sight as much as possible. This makes sense because they wanted to keep their teen safe, however, this can intensify the emotional experience their teen is having. Instead, unless you feel your teen is at immediate risk, follow step 7 and allow a professional to offer suggestions for what precautions are necessary and will be most helpful for your teen’s recovery.


  1. Get professional help as quickly as possible. While the intent of someone engaging in self-injury is not to die, there have been too many cases where someone cuts too deeply or injures themselves in some other way and does, in fact die. Teens who are self-injuring or having suicidal ideation are in significant emotional pain. They deserve to receive professional help that will help them find lasting relief from their suffering. When looking for a counselor, be sure they have experience in working with teenagers and with self-injury. This is not an issue that everyone is skilled in addressing and it will be important for your teen’s recovery that they get the best support possible. Even if your teen does not want to go to therapy, this should be non-negotiable. Perhaps they can have input into who they see (assuming there are options), or what day of the week they attend, however, getting professional help will be critical to their recovery.


  1. Get support for yourself. In addition to getting support for your teen, a therapist or a coach can help you, as the parent, manage all that you will experience while you are helping your teen deal with their self-injury. They can also help you learn how best to support your teen during this difficult time.


Individuals who self-injure can recover, gain hope, and lead happy, productive and satisfying lives with the proper support. They need to learn how to process through their emotions and learn the skills necessary to help them manage challenging situations and emotions in a healthy manner. In my work as both a therapist working with teens, as well as a coach working with parents of teens, I have seen teens completely eliminate self-injurious behaviors and develop positive coping skills that help them deal with challenging situations moving forward.


If you are the parent of a teen seeking support for yourself, please do not hesitate to reach out at [email protected]. For ongoing tips and strategies related to parenting teens, follow me on Instagram @howtoparentateen HERE. If you want to be in community with other parents of teens and get even more support, strategies, and encouragement, join my How To Parent A Teen Facebook Group HERE.

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