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Warning Signs of Self Harm in Young Teens

teen recovering from self harm and depression at clear recovery center teen program

Many teens struggle with depression, anxiety, or emotional instability. In fact, around 49.5% of teens suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Though it may seem like your teen is just going through a tough phase, sometimes these behaviors can escalate into self-harm.

Self-harm is any action taken by an individual to purposefully cause physical harm to themselves. This can include cutting, burning, or any other type of self-inflicted injury. Though it may only seem like a cry for help, self-harm is also often a way for teens to cope with difficult emotions.

If you’re worried that your teen may be engaging in self-harm or self-injury, below are some warning signs to look out for and ways to guide them through their mental health issues.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is also sometimes referred to as nonsuicidal self-injury or NSSI in clinical settings. During the act, individuals will use any number of methods to physically injure themselves. Forms of self-harm can include, but are not limited to:

  • Cutting or self-mutilation
  • Burning
  • Hitting or punching oneself
  • Scratching oneself
  • Interfering with wound healing
  • Hair pulling
  • Bone breaking
  • Exposing oneself to extreme cold or heat
  • Swallowing poisonous substances
  • Eating disorders

Unfortunately, nonsuicidal self-injury is incredibly common, with around 17% of adolescents and 13% of young adults engaging in self-harming behaviors. When a person engages in self-harming behaviors, the intent might be to feel physical pain, inflict injury on themselves, or handle high levels of emotional distress. In addition, studies show that people who self-harm do so with at least part of themselves wanting the act to end in loss of life.

It’s important to note that, as the name suggests, NSSI does not lead to suicide. However, those who engage in self-harm are at a significantly higher risk for suicide and might experience negative feelings associated with depression and other mental illnesses.

Why Do Teens Self-Harm?

There is no single answer to this question, as each individual has different motivations for why they might injure themselves. However, there are various studies that suggest certain reasons why people self-harm.


Some studies show a correlation between anxiety disorders and non suicidal self-injury. This correlation is especially high in people and teens who suffer from social anxiety issues. When teens suffer from anxiety, they often have difficulty expressing the overwhelming emotions they’re experiencing. As a result, some might turn to self-harming as a way to release their feelings in a physical manner.

Some anxiety symptoms that might be difficult to handle for teens include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Excessive worry
  • Racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Trouble sleeping

When someone suffers from anxiety, the symptoms can be so difficult to live with and so intrusive, that self-injury may start to seem like the only way to cope. Anxiety is also associated with increased suicide attempts, making it difficult to distinguish whether a person is self harming or suicidal. If your teen is struggling with these symptoms and exhibiting signs of cutting, such as using sharp objects during a panic attack, it’s important to bring up the topic and explore other ways they can cope with their anxiety.


Depression and Bipolar Disorder are both associated with self-harm. In fact, studies show that the highest risk of people who self-injure have clinical depression and bipolar disorder. It’s important to note that depression is more than just feeling sad or going through a tough phase. Depression is a serious mental illness that can turn everyday activities seem impossible and become devastating to the overall well-being of a teen.

Some symptoms of depression in teens include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Anger or irritability
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Difficulty concentrating

Sadly, evidence shows that depression rates are increasing among the teen population, showing just how prevalent this issue is and how important it is to remain vigilant of the signs of depression in teens. For many teens, self-harming behaviors can be a way to cope with negative thoughts that come with depression. It can also be a way to physically feel something when a teen feels emotionally numb. In addition, when teens experience depression, feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness are common. As a result, some might turn to self-harm as a way to punish themselves. If you notice signs of self-harm and depression, such as isolation and preoccupation with harm, visit a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Bipolar Disorder

As mentioned, bipolar disorder is another mental illness that’s associated with self-harm in teens. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme shifts in mood, energy levels, and behavior. These shifts are known as “mood episodes” and can last for days, weeks, or even months. There are two types of mood episodes associated with bipolar disorder – manic episodes and depressive episodes.

Manic episodes are characterized by:

  • Increased energy levels
  • Elevated mood
  • Impulsivity
  • Risky behavior
  • Aggression

Depressive episodes are characterized by:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia

For many people with bipolar disorder, self-harm can be a way to cope with the intense emotions that come along with the condition. It can also be a way to physically feel something when they are undergoing intense levels of depression. It’s important to note that the depression experienced during bipolar disorder is extremely different from “normal” depression. As a result, it can be difficult to understand and manage without proper treatment. A psychologist will be the best option to help you understand if your teen is struggling with bipolar disorder and self-harm.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that are also associated with self-harm. Eating disorders are characterized by an obsession with food and weight. People with eating disorders often have a distorted view of their bodies and see themselves as overweight, even when they are not. There are three main types of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Studies show that people with anorexia have a higher risk of self-injurious behavior (up to 41%). Sadly, as many as 10 in 100 young women have a diagnosed eating disorder. For many of these women and men, using self-harm can be a way to cope with the negative thoughts and feelings associated with their disorder. Signs of eating disorders and self-injury include:

  • Beating oneself up (punching, hitting, slapping)
  • Purging after meals
  • Restricting food intake
  • Missing work or school due to preoccupation with weight

If you notice signs of an eating disorder and self-harm in your teen, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible. Eating disorders are extremely dangerous and can be life-threatening if left untreated, as can self-harm.

Other Warning Signs of Self Harm

There are a few other warning signs of self-harm in teens, that may indicate a parent needs to start paying closer attention to their teen’s mental health.

  • Unexplained cuts or other injuries
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants to hide injuries
  • Keeping blades, knives, or other sharp objects in their room
  • Engaging in risky behaviors such as unsafe sex

Does Self-Injury Mean My Teen is at Risk For Suicide?

Many people worry that self-harming behavior might lead to a suicide attempt. Self-injury and suicide are certainly related but may have very different underlying reasons and causes. There is a complicated relationship between self-harm behaviors and negative emotions, and suicide. Many young people who engage in self-harm indicate that they are extremely likely to attempt suicide in the future. If you’re concerned about your teen’s mental health, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Mental Health Treatment for Self Harm

Self-harm is a symptom of an underlying mental illness. Treatment should be focused on the underlying condition, not just the act of self-harm itself. A mental health professional can help treat underlying conditions such as borderline personality disorder, extreme emotional distress, and the mental illnesses listed above.

In addition, there are several forms of treatment that can help teens with self-harm. Some of the best treatment methods include:

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): DBT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that’s specifically designed to help people with borderline personality disorder. Studies show that DBT can be helpful in reducing self-harm behaviors. Many people who undergo DBT learn how to manage levels of extreme emotional distress, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and gain a better understanding of themselves.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of therapy that’s designed to help people with a variety of mental health conditions. CBT can be helpful in treating the underlying causes of self-harm, such as negative thinking, low self-esteem, and poor coping skills. CBT is easy to access, as it’s offered by many mental health professionals.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication might be necessary to treat the underlying mental illness. For example, people with bipolar disorder might need medication to stabilize their moods. People with anxiety disorders might need medication to reduce their anxiety levels.

Where to Get Treatment For My Teen?

When teens self-injure, they run the risk of accidental death, infection, and further mental health problems. As a result, it’s important to get professional help as soon as possible.

If you’re concerned about your teen’s mental health, there are several places you can turn to for help. Here are a few options:

  • Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP): IOP is a type of treatment that’s designed for people who need more than one weekly therapy session. A teen IOP can be helpful for teens who are struggling with self-harm, as it offers more support than traditional outpatient treatment.
  • Residential Treatment Center (RTC): RTCs are designed for people who need 24-hour care. RTCs can be helpful for teens who are struggling with self-harm or substance abuse, as they offer a higher level of support than IOPs.
  • Emergency room: If you’re concerned that your teen might hurt themselves, you can take them to the emergency room. The staff will assess your teen’s condition and ensure they’re safe.

The main difference between outpatient and inpatient programs is that an inpatient program involves a teen staying overnight at a facility. Inpatient facilities have bedrooms, showers, kitchens, and other amenities, as well as more intensive treatment that happens all throughout the day. Outpatient programs involve a teen visiting a treatment facility during the day and returning home after their treatment is finished. The decision about the type of program that a teen needs will need to be determined by the teen, the teen’s family, and the teen’s doctors and mental health professionals.

Help Teens With Self-Injurious Behavior at Clear Recovery Teen

Don’t wait to get help for your teen. If you’re concerned about their mental health and notice the signs of self-harm, help is available through outpatient treatment programs, and family therapy.

At Clear Recovery Center, our team is dedicated to providing high-quality treatment options to help your loved one recover from self-harm. No teen should ever suffer from self-abuse, and we can help provide outpatient treatment and partial hospitalization programs to give them the support and attention they need to improve their lives.