Supporting your Teen Through Self-Harm: 9 Tips for Parents

Self-harming behaviour is a way for someone, usually children and teens, to injure or hurt themselves on purpose. It is becoming increasingly common. It’s hard to gauge exactly how many teens have self-harmed but one study suggests the number could be anywhere from 17 to 60%.

Discovering, or even suspecting, your teen may be engaged in self-harming behaviour is enough to elicit feelings of shame, panic, guilt, and fear. And as a loving parent, these feelings are completely understandable. There is nothing worse than knowing our child is resorting to self-harm as a way to cope with the strong emotions inside.

You may worry it is just a stepping-stone to suicide. However, while scary, teen self-injury is usually a symptom of extreme emotional distress.

Here are some tips to help you support your teenager through self-harming behaviour.

Tips for Parents of Teens Committing Self-Harm

1. First of all, Find the WHY: Understand Why Your Teen Engages in Self-Harm

Contrary to popular belief, children and teens who engage in self-harm do not do so for attention (in most cases) or because they are attempting suicide.

Self-harm is actually an unhealthy coping mechanism for them to deal with difficult emotions. Here are a few reasons for their use of self-injury:

  • It is a way for them to feel in control of their emotions.
  • It distracts them from their difficult emotions or situations.
  • It serves as punishment for perceived faults, mistakes, or flaws.
  • Physical pain is better than feeling numb or empty due to depression.

These are other feelings that can trigger your teen to commit self-injury:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Sadness
  • Feeling rejected by peers, friends, or adults
  • Loneliness
  • Social issues
  • Family conflict
  • Social media

Although self-harm usually provides teens with a sense of calm and tension release, it is only temporary.

As they continue to seek release, they may repeat the behaviour for a long time, leading to compulsive behaviour and possible injury or death.

2. Be Aware of the Types of Teen Self-Mutilation

Although cutting with a knife or sharp object is the most common type of self-harm, it can look different from teen to teen.

Here are a few different types of self-harm:

  • Picking at scabs or wounds
  • Scratching, biting, or burning their skin
  • Hitting or punching themselves or objects
  • Puncturing skin with sharp objects
  • Pulling out hair
  • Consuming drugs and overdosing
  • Drinking in excess
  • Picking fights to get injured
  • Engaging in unsafe sex
  • Banging their head or body against walls or hard objects
  • Extreme exercising – to the point of collapse or injury
self-harm in teens - support for parents
Source: Adobe Stock

3. Recognise the Symptoms of Teen Self-Harm

Shame and remorse are very often associated with teen self-injury. Most teens do it in private and are quite skilled at hiding it from parents, teachers, and friends.

As difficult of a subject as it is, if you suspect your teen is engaging in self-mutilating behaviour, you must remain vigilant for the following red flags:

  • Suspicious or unexplained scars, bruises, or wounds
  • Scabs or wounds that don’t seem to heal or get worse over time
  • Secretive behaviour or spending too much time in their bedroom or bathroom
  • Keeping sharp objects around
  • Talking about self-harm
  • Wearing skin-covering clothes, such as long sleeves or pants, even in hot weather
  • Blood stains on their bedding, clothing, towels, or tissues
  • Isolation and social withdrawal
  • Avoiding places and situations where they might need to reveal skin, such as swimming or sports
  • Impulsive, unstable, or irritable behaviour
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Difficulties with relationships

4. Your Reaction Matters: Remain Calm and Supportive 

Discovering your child is committing self-harm can send you into a tailspin of shame, panic, and fear.

Your first impulse might be to demand that your teen stop their behaviour immediately. However, your teen is probably just as scared as you are and is likely facing feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse.

The best thing you can do for them during this crucial moment is to remain calm and refrain from snap criticisms and overreactions. Yelling, judgment, and threats will only lead your teen to shut down and isolate further.

Instead, express your caring support and unconditional love.

5. Seek Professional Help for Your Self-Harming Teen

Finding out your teen is self-harming is a lot to take on and this is one instance where we believe parents should reach out for professional help. Not every parent will, but, if you do decide to, help is available. Start by speaking to your GP about your teen’s behaviour. They should be able to point you in the right direction which may include seeing a member of the Child and Youth Mental Health Service team. Every state is different but your first port of call should be the GP.

You may find that there is a long wait to see someone who can help which is incredibly frustrating. If this is the case, try contacting Headspace.

Self-harm is not considered a mental illness; however, it is an unhealthy coping mechanism associated with an underlying condition, such as border personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Therefore, seeking the help of a professional to address the root cause and learn new, healthy coping strategies for dealing with stressful events and emotions is of the utmost importance. A professional can not only help teens but also offer support and advice to parents on how they can help their teens through self-harm.

If your teen needs urgent medical attention due to serious wounds or an overdose, call 000 immediately.

6. Offer Your Teen Emotional Support

Be a source of calm, love, and respect for your teen.

While they may not have the right words to express how they feel, their strong feelings and emotions are valid and normal. Convey this to them, acknowledging their pain and difficulty in handling big emotions.

Create a loving support network for your teen. It can include family members, peers, school counsellors, and mentors. You can even create a list of people to call or text when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

7. Set Social Media Limits

Social media can keep teens from engaging in healthy activities that can provide opportunities to develop positive coping strategies, such as sleeping, exercising, and spending time in nature or face-to-face interactions.

Additionally, websites and social media accounts that support or glamourise self-harming behaviours can draw teens in when they feel most vulnerable.

Furthermore, the Australian Parenting Website, Raising Children, describes digital self-harm or self-cyber bullying as another way teens can engage in self-harming activities by creating false online identities to post cruel comments about themselves that others can then contribute to and engage in.

Therefore, it is best to limit your teen’s time on social media.

8. Encourage Teens to Engage in Positive Activities

When your teen is struggling, it’s hard for them to want to open up, to spend time with you or to even engage in things they once enjoyed doing. But, as parents, it’s our job to keep trying. Keep asking, Keep offering ideas. Writing, art, music, and dance can all be creative activities that encourage self-expression and are a source of stress and anxiety release. Your teen may scoff at every suggestion but keep asking.

Even if your teen doesn’t want to do organised activities or sports, get them out of the house and into the fresh air. Suggest a walk or a hike. Set up weights for them to do in the garage. Or a boxing bag. Suggest skipping challenges or a hand ball competition. Anything to get them moving and get those “feel good” chemicals working.

9. Remind Yourself that this isn’t your Fault 

The guilt and shame can be awful when you discover your child is self-harming. How could I not have seen this sooner? How could I have let this happen? How can I be sure they stop? What if it happens again? 

Please, parents, know that this isn’t something you have done. This is something some teenagers do to cope with their very heavy emotions and, although it’s not healthy, it is common. So, take care of yourself. Remove the guilt. Reach out and talk about it if you need to. Our Mums of Tweens and Teens Australia Facebook Group is full of supportive parents going through similar things.

As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. You have to take care of yourself physically and mentally so you can stay calm and stable when things get tough. So, please don’t neglect your mental health and reach out to a professional if you become distressed or overwhelmed with your teen’s behaviour.

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Gloria Ruby Ramirez is a writer, mother, and lover of coffee, twinkle lights, and rain who believes in the magical power of words. She is passionate about parenting, mental health, and the environment. She is a former agricultural microbiologist/plant pathologist with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology from Arizona State University. Born in the desert of northern Mexico, she is mum to her beautifully energetic son and Shih Tzu, Gerty. When not writing, Gloria can be found spending time with her son and family, reading, or embroidering.

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