Patient EducationJan | 13 | 2020
Helping a Teen Who Self-Harms
It can be difficult or even scary to learn that your teen is harming themselves. Learn the different types of self-harm and signs of possible self-harm and tips on how to help your teen if they are self-harming.
What Is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is when a person hurts or damages him/herself on purpose to relieve pain or stress.
Why Would a Person Self-Harm?
People harm themselves for different reasons, but the most common reasons are:
- To relieve stress
- To express themselves
- To punish themselves
- As a cry for help
In many cases, self-harm is not a sign that someone wishes to die. It’s very often a cry for help or a way to cope with difficult feelings.
What Are Different Types of Self-Harm?
Cutting is the most common form of self-harm, but others include:
- Pinching or scratching the skin
- Punching or hitting
What Are Signs of Possible Self-Harm?
- Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather. The arms, legs, chest and stomach are the most common places where people self-harm.
- Keeping sharp objects on hand
- Having trouble with friendships or relationships with family
- Spending a lot of time alone
- Depressed (sad) or anxious (nervous) mood
- Frequent accidents or explanations for injuries that don’t make sense
How Can I Help My Teen If They Self-Harm?
- Ask your child about anything that might be causing stress in their life. Stressful events, like a death in the family or arguments at home, can have a strong effect on your teen’s mental health.
- Stay calm and listen carefully without judgment to why your teen is self-harming. Your teen might be relieved to know you care and that you’re willing to listen. They might also be scared that you’ll react badly or strongly. It’s important to stay calm and listen carefully, even if you’re very worried or scared.
- Remember that your teen might not be ready or willing to talk with you about self-harm. If your teen isn’t comfortable talking with you, find someone they are comfortable talking with, like a doctor or other family member.
- Remember that self-harm is not always a sign that your teen wants to die. Self-harm is more often a cry for help.
- Help your teen find healthier ways for your teen to express feelings or cope with stress. Tell your teen that you understand why they are self-harming, but that there are different ways to cope with whatever is upsetting them. Talking about ways to cope can help your teen reduce their need to self-harm over time.
- Believe in your teen’s ability to reduce and overcome self-harm. Be patient and remember that overcoming self-harm is a slow process. Tell your teen you love them no matter what. Tell them you believe in their ability to reduce self-harm and find different ways to cope with stress or difficult feelings.
It’s okay to feel worried or scared when you learn that your teen is or might be self-harming. If you’re worried for their safety, call the doctor or go to the nearest emergency room.
Rev. 3/2016. Mass General for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions. Adapted from “My Child is Deliberately Cutting Herself: What Do I Do?” by Steven Schlozman, MD, of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.