Adolescence is an incredibly challenging time in one’s live. There are rapid and exponential psychological, physical, emotional and developmental maturation processes that occur simultaneously as a result adolescence. Hormones are surging through teenagers’ bodies and navigating how to regulate the emotional and physical impact of them is difficult. Often teenagers employ a trial and error method for coping as a means to manage the intense changes they are experiencing. Every teen is different and will experience and process the stressors related to adolescence distinctly.

Self Harm In Teens

Adolescents that inflict self-harm and/ or self-mutilation can do so in a variety of different ways. This can occur on any area of one’s body, but it is most frequently seen on the arms, legs, and/ or front of the torso. The Mayo Clinic provides a comprehensive list of reported self-harming methods, some of which include the following examples: 

  • Scratching
  • Carving and/ or branding one’s skin
  • Hitting oneself
  • Burning
  • Ingesting poison
  • Cutting
  • Inserting foreign objects under the skin and/ or into one’s body
  • Head banging
  • Pulling hair out
  • Getting excessive body piercings
  • Picking scabs to prevent wounds from healing
  • Jumping in front of vehicles and/ or from high places
  • Overdosing on drugs and/ or medication

It is normal and should be expected that the majority of teenagers are likely to experience an array of pain in during their teenage years. However, it is abnormal for a teenager to purposefully engage in self-mutilation and/ or self-harm and must obtain professional help immediately. 

Warning Signs

Teenagers are notorious for exhibiting moody behavior and remaining exceedingly private. There a plethora of potential reasons for the impetus behind why a teenager acts the way he or she does, but the reality is those reasons are rarely, if not ever, revealed to a parent and/ or caregiver. There are specific warning signs for which to be on the lookout regarding self-harming behaviors in teens. Examples of these warning signs can include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Missing patches of hair (from head, eyebrows and/ or eyelashes)
  • Spending time with people that harm themselves
  • Only wearing long sleeved clothes, regardless of the outside temperature
  • The presence of cuts, bruises, scratches, burns, and/ or carvings on one’s body
  • Self-isolation
  • Noticing sharp objects hidden in his or her belongings

Many warning signs that are indicative of a teen inflicting self-harming behaviors are similar to typical behaviors exhibited by any teenager. It is important to note, that not all adolescents that present with any combination of the above examples is undoubtedly causing self-harm. However, if concern arises it is best to seek the guidance of a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible to assure the safety of the teenager. 

Treatment Options

There is an array of treatment options available for a teen struggling with self-harm and/ or self-mutilation. The first step is to have a calm conversation with the teenager expressing concern and offering support. The next step is to set up an appointment for the teenager to get evaluated by a mental health professional. This will illuminate the presence of any underlying mental health issues that may be driving the teen to engage in self-harming behaviors. The mental health evaluator will also be able to provide guidance as to subsequent steps to help the teen obtain the needed support to stop the self-destructive behavior. 

It is highly common for some form of formalized treatment to be recommended by the evaluating mental health professional. A teen may benefit from individualized therapy as a means to treat his or her self-mutilating and/ or self-harming behaviors. There are formalized outpatient mental health programs that require the teen to participate in the treatment program for a certain number of hours, daily. Depending on the severity of the situation, there are also acute inpatient mental health treatment programs that offer twenty-four-hour care and support throughout the duration of the program. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary. 

The treatment approaches vary, as they are contingent upon the specific needs of the teenager. A customized treatment plan is developed to accommodate the nuanced needs of the teenager. Generally the treatment protocol for teens that engage in self-harm will include some combination of different psychotherapy approaches. Certain psychotherapy modalities that are commonly integrated into treatment plans for teens that self-harm include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), psychodynamic psychotherapy, mindfulness-based therapy, creative arts therapies, and/ or family therapy. Treatment plans may also include medication. Some medications can be helpful in decreasing uncomfortable symptoms associated with other underlying mental health issues, which in turn can reduce the urge to self-harm.