Is your teen self-harming? Warning signs and how to help

As a parent, it can be extremely distressing to find your teenager is deliberately inflicting injury on themselves. Here’s what you can do to help.

Nearly one in five adolescents in Australia has self-harmed, and many more have considered it.

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves deliberately causing pain or injury to yourself, such as cutting, burning, pulling out hair and biting or scratching the skin.

While people of all ages deliberately hurt their bodies, young people are more at risk, and among those who are school aged, it’s a growing problem.

“Self-harm is definitely on the rise,” psychologist Dr Marilyn Campbell, a professor at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, says.

“And it may be just the tip of the iceberg, so that there are a lot more kids who are self-harming than we know about.”

How many teens are self-harming?

According to Australian Institute of Family Studies research:

  • 18 per cent of 14-17 year olds have self-harmed.
  • About one in three have considered it.

These statistics don’t surprise Dr Campbell.

“The mental health of young people living in developed countries has declined over the last 10-15 years worldwide, so amongst young people’s rising concerns, this trend isn’t surprising,” she says.

One of the study’s authors, Dr Pilar Rioseco, says Covid-19 hasn’t helped.

“We know from official statistics that presentations to emergency departments due to self-harm increased during the pandemic,” she says.

Why do teenagers self-harm?

There are all kinds of reasons why someone might self-harm.

According to Lifeline, they include:

  • To cope with difficult or painful emotions.
  • To manage issues, such as life stress.
  • To punish themselves.
  • To release tension.
  • To feel more in control.

Is self-harming a cry for help?

It’s important to note that most who self-harm aren’t trying to kill themselves.

“A young person who’s in a lot of psychological pain wants that pain to stop, so they might attempt to get rid of it temporarily by causing themselves physical pain,” Dr Campbell explains.

While it’s usually done in secret and on parts of the body that may not be seen by others, self-harm can also be a cry for help.

“We live in a society where it’s much easier to see and understand physical rather than psychological symptoms,” Dr Campbell says.

“So as well as being about trying to replace psychological pain with physical pain, self-harm may also be partly and subconsciously motivated by the thought that it’ll be taken more seriously and that somebody might help.”

Who’s most at risk of self-harm?

The AIFS study revealed some interesting findings.

“Our study showed that having elevated depressive symptoms is one of the strongest risk factors for self-injury,” Dr Rioseco says.

The study also showed girls are more likely than boys to both consider and engage in self-harm. It found:

  • 42 per cent of girls had contemplated self-harm compared to 18 per cent of boys.
  • 26 per cent of girls reported acts of self-injury compared to 9 per cent of boys.

“We also found that adolescents who are same-sex attracted are at a higher risk of self-injury,” Dr Rioseco says.

“And in terms of relationships, while having a close relationship with a parent is a protective factor, being the victim of bullying increased the risk of self-injury.”

Signs of self-harm parents should watch for

Notice if your child avoids activities like swimming or wears long sleeves or pants in hot weather to cover scars or wounds, Dr Rioseco says.

And become familiar with the signs of depression, given it’s a risk factor for self-injury.

“It is important for parents to keep an eye on changes in mood and behaviour that persist over time, as well as having open channels of communication with their teenage children so they can become aware if children are struggling, provide support and seek professional help,” Dr Rioseco says.

“Signs to look out for include a child losing interest in activities they used to enjoy, becoming very irritable, a change in sleeping or eating patterns, and feeling worthless or hopeless.”

Read more about the common signs of depression and self-harm in teenagers.

How to help your child

If you know or suspect your child is self-harming or you’re worried they’re thinking about it, Dr Rioseco stresses the importance of remaining calm.

“Stay calm and ask your child about what’s happening and how they’re feeling.

“It’s vital to focus on listening without judgement and to assure your child that you’re there to support them.”

Dr Campbell agrees. “Reassure them that you’re not going to get mad or make any rash decisions,” she says.

“Let them know that for now, you just want to hear what’s going on and if they share, stress how pleased you are they’ve told you.

“Then, let them know that together, after you’ve both had time to process things and talk about it more, you’ll work out what might be helpful for them moving forward.”

Where to go for help

Help could come from a professional such as a GP, counsellor or psychologist, or online or phone support services like Headspace and Kids Helpline – Teens may be helpful.

“Self-injury is a sign of intense emotional pain or distress,” Dr Rioseco says.

“Therefore, the goal is not just to stop the self-injuring behaviour, but also understand and address the underlying causes.”

Written by Karen Fittall.