Self-Harm Among Teenagers Is More Common Than You Think

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There’s no doubt about it – the teenage years can be difficult for everyone. However, sometimes parents realize that the moodiness associated with coming of age may be more than just the typical teen angst, and it’s particularly alarming for those that discover their children have also been intentionally harming themselves.

Self-harm, also known as non-suicidal self-injury, is unfortunately more common that you might think. One recent study suggests that as many as one in five children between 10 and 18 years old are engaging in intentional self-harm, such as cutting, burning, or hitting themselves.  But why would that be? And as a parent, how can you stop it?

John Hertzer, MD, Director of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and psychiatric consultant for the Highland Springs Changes program, answers some questions about recognizing signs of self-harm in teens and when to seek help.

Why Would My Teen Intentionally Self-Harm?

This type of behavior understandably baffles most parents. They often wonder if self-injury means their child is suicidal. Typically, people who self-harm do so as a way of alleviating some emotional distress they are experiencing by channeling their internal pain into external pain. Some teenagers report feeling so emotionally numb that the pain can be a mechanism to elicit feeling anything at all. For others, physical pain is a distraction from their emotional turmoil, and for all children, it’s a cry for help.

While there may be several underlying reasons for this type of behavior, one thing is consistent: it’s always a sign that your child needs professional help. Self-harm is a high-risk behavior that, if unaddressed, can result in permanent scarring, disfigurement and accidental death.

What Can I Do if I Suspect My Teenager is Self-Harming?

First, you can know the signs to look for. These include:

  • Suspicious/unexplainable cuts, wounds, or scars
  • Multiple wounds in the same place on your child’s body
  • Collecting or frequently carrying lighters or sharp tools such as razors, nail clippers, safety pins
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts in warm weather
  • Wearing a lot of adhesive bandages
  • Bloody tissues or bandages hidden at the bottom of trash cans
  • Spending time isolated in their room
  • Refusing to let you see their arms, legs, or other parts of the body that are usually exposed

If you notice these behaviors, it’s time to have a psychological assessment to ensure your child receives the help needed.

What Can I Expect in Treatment?

After an assessment, it’s possible that your child may be recommended to join an intensive outpatient therapy program. Depending on the assessment of a qualified clinician, your child may be recommended to participate in a Partial Hospitalization Program, where kids take part in group talk therapy, medication management if needed, family involvement, as well as holistic, activity-based therapy like art, music and yoga. You could also be recommended for an Intensive Outpatient Program, which meets less frequently but also offers similar services. Both levels of care are possible without sacrificing school work, and the recommendation for care is based on your child’s unique circumstances and clinical needs.

Related Links

The transition to adulthood is filled with challenges. Each person’s journey is unique, and life doesn’t come with a clear road map. Sometimes things happen that make the transition to adulthood harder, and for young adults suffering from mental illness, the road can be even more difficult. Learn more about adolescent psychiatry services at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.

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