Teenagers Who Self-Harm: Why and What To Do About It?

Do you have a teenager who self-harms? Maybe they cut themselves or burn themselves? It’s even possible that they punch walls or pull out body hair. If you are a parent who cares about your teenager, my guess is you’re in panic mode and just aren’t sure what to do. This blog can’t answer all of your questions, but maybe it will give you enough information on self-harm and just a bit of guidance as to what you’re next step can be.

What is self-harm? The definition of self-harm is to hurt oneself in order to relieve emotional pain. This can be done in numerous ways. If your teenager tends to kick hard things or punch hard walls when they’re upset, which leads to any sort of physical pain, this can be labeled as self-harm. The most common forms of self-harm are cutting and burning oneself. Unfortunately, many of our teenagers today don’t know how to cope with emotional pain or distress. They’re ill-equipped to deal with the stressors of school, home life and peer relationships. At school they’re faced with reaching a certain standard, that in some people’s eyes is just too high. They are also faced with bullying, taunting, and ostracizing. At home, there may be financial problems that the parents don’t keep hidden from them. Their parents may fight often or may even be divorced. In peer relationships, teens are trying to fit in to whatever group has accepted them. They may be dealing with identity struggles, not knowing who they are or what they like/dislike. There’s drama between peers as well as the struggles of dating and figuring out how to muddle through those murky waters. Most teenagers haven’t read any self-help books before they hit the teen years, so how are they supposed to prepare for such stressors?

Why does my teenager self-harm? Self-harm, especially cutting and burning, releases endorphins, which cause a feeling of numbness or even a pleasurable sensation. Research has shown that many teenagers who self-harm don’t tend to be suicidal, they just want to have a moment where they feel better. Once they cut for the first time, they realize the endorphin effect can give them a moments relief. We can compare this to an addiction of sorts. Addicts continue to use substances based upon the “high” they get from the substance. Once they experience that “high” they are hooked.

However, the endorphin effect is not the only reason some teenagers turn to self-harm. Other possible reasons are:

  • Pressure to be “perfect” in their parents’ eyes

  • Not having their thoughts and emotions validated

  • Wanting to fit in to a certain peer group (who may have many self-harmers)

  • Conflict within the family where the teen does not have a voice, or feels invisible

These are just several options for why a teenager begins to self-harm. It takes time, understanding, compassion and empathy before a teenager will really open up to a parent or counselor about why they feel the need to self-harm. Even then, some teenagers are unable to put into words why they do it. This can be very frustrating for parents and can cause more conflict within the family unit.

What do I do? This is the next question most parents ask. They want to be sure their teenager receives the help they need. Parents might have a knee-jerk reaction to finding out their teenager has begun self-harming. Many of these reactions include the parent admitting their child into a psychiatric hospital, isolating the teenager from all “bad” influences, keeping the teen home from school, turning their teenager’s room upside down looking for all sharp objects, grounding the teenager for life, screaming and yelling, crying uncontrollably, etc. Basically, parents want to put their teen in a padded room until they can get to the bottom of it. The best option for a parent is to sit down and LISTEN to their teenager. Show them that you want to hear their thoughts and feelings. Show them that you’re trying to understand. Calmly discuss these things with your teenager and then talk about going to see a counselor. Offer to see the counselor WITH you teen. Most likely, the teenager’s self-harming behavior is not the only problem. Family counseling can be extremely effective when dealing with self-harm. Family counseling allows for open communication about the problem, about the emotions that have been buried as well as figuring out a solution that works for EVERYONE involved.

Lee Counseling Services offers family counseling and we want to help you and your teenager. Give us a call today. We offer a FREE 20-minute consult before each appointment. You don’t have to do this alone. We are here to help and support all of you along this path.