When someone self-harms, that means that they’re deliberately hurting themselves. When someone engages in self-harm, they may have a variety of intentions. However, the person’s intention is not to kill themselves. Self-harm is referred to as many things, including parasuicide, self-mutilation, self-injury, self-abuse, cutting, self-inflicted violence. In this article we hope to answer some questions you as a parent might have about self-harm and your teen.

Who Engages in Self-Harm?

Self-harm is more common in females than in males, and it tends to begin in adolescence or early adulthood. While some people may engage in self-harm a few times and then stop, others engage in it frequently and have great difficulty stopping the behavior. Self-harm is not a mental illness, but a behavior that indicates a lack of coping skills. Individuals who engage in self-harm often have histories of:

  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Childhood physical abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Insecure attachment
  • Prolonged separation from caregivers

Additionally, individuals who self-harm have higher rates of the following psychological problems:

  • Dissociation
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder
  • Antisocial personality
  • Eating disorders

Why Do People Hurt Themselves?

While the answer to this question varies from individual to individual, some people self-harm because they want to:

  • Distract themselves from emotional pain by causing physical pain
  • Punish themselves
  • Relieve tension
  • Feel real by feeling pain or seeing evidence of injury
  • Feel numb, zoned out, calm, or at peace
  • Experience euphoric feelings (associated with release of endorphins)
  • Communicate their pain, anger, or other emotions to others
  • Nurture themselves (through the process of healing the wounds)

How is Self-Harm Treated?

Those who self-harm can get help through professional psychologists. There are also some treatments that specifically focus on stopping the self-harm. A good example of this is Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a treatment that involves individual therapy and group skills training. The theory behind DBT is that individuals tend to engage in self-harm in an attempt to regulate or control their strong emotions. DBT teaches clients alternative ways of managing their emotions and tolerating distress.

How to Find a Qualified Psychologist

If your teen is involved in self-harm and you’re looking for a psychologist, ask the psychologist whether they are familiar with self-harm. Consider which issues are important to you and your teen and make sure that you can talk to the potential therapist about them. Remember that you are the consumer, so you have the right to interview therapists until you find someone who is right for your son. You may want to ask trusted friends or medical professionals for referrals to psychologists. Consider asking your potential provider questions, such as:

  • How do you treat this?
  • What do you think causes this?
  • Do you have experience in treating this?

Self-Help Resources

There are a variety of self-help books on the market for people who engage in self-harm. Most of these provide practical advice, support, and coping skills that may be helpful to individuals who engage in self-harm. These approaches have not been studied in research trials, so it is not known how effective they are for individuals who self-harm. Two books that may be useful to individuals who self-harm are:

Alderman, T. (1997). The Scarred Soul: Understanding and Ending Self-Inflicted Violence. Oakland , CA : New Harbinger Publications.

Conterio, K., & Lader, W. (1998). Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers. New York : Hyperion.

How Can I Support My Teen if He is Involved in Self-Harm?

If you have a teen who hurts themselves, it can be distressing and confusing for you. You may feel guilty, angry, scared, powerless, or any number of things. Both of the books mentioned above contain chapters for friends and family members. Some general guidelines are:

  • Take the self-harm seriously by expressing concern and encouraging professional help.
  • Ultimately your teen needs to make the choice to stop the behavior, so don’t try to overpower your teen.
  • Don’t blame yourself. Your teen initiated this behavior and needs to take responsibility for stopping it.
  • If your teen does not want professional help because he doesn’t think that the behavior is a problem, inform him that a professional is the best person to make this determination. Suggest that a professional is a neutral third party who will not be emotionally invested in the situation and so will be able to make the soundest recommendations.

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