Adolescent Self-Harm

Last week on “Red Table Talk” – the Facebook Watch chat show with Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter Willow, and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Jones – Willow Smith surprised her mom by revealing that she had cut herself as a tween.  Cutting is a form of self-harm where teens cut or scratch themselves with a knife, fingernail, razor or other sharp object on their arms, legs or belly.

“I was experiencing so much emotional pain, but my physical circumstances weren’t reflecting that,” said Willow. “Cutting made the pain more tangible; something you can put your finger on…. a lot of adolescent girls struggle with self-harm.”

Several years ago, popular teen singer and actress, Demi Lovato, also admitted that she wrestled with cutting in her tween and teen years. “It was a way of expressing my shame on my body,” she told “20/20,” ABC’s newsmagazine. “There were times where my emotions were just so built up, I didn’t know what to do. [Cutting was] the only way I could get an immediate release.”

In recent years, self-harm (a term for self-inflicted injuries, such as cutting oneself) has surged. The Child Mind Institute estimates that a quarter of all teens intentionally harm themselves. Nearly 20% more females, age 10 to 14, have sought emergency room treatment for harming themselves every year since 2009.

Self-harm crosses racial, socioeconomic, and gender lines. It is an unhealthy way that teens deal with the stress of an emotional issue or event. A teen that feels overwhelmed by a loss or a problem, physically hurts themselves. The injury provides a temporary sense of relief from strong, painful feelings that have built up inside by allowing the teen to focus on the injury as the pain and to feel a sense of control. Young adults who have depression or anxiety are six times more likely to self-harm, compared to those who have no depression and anxiety.

Preventing Self-Injury

There are two main things parents can do to help prevent their child from self-harming:

  • Teach stress management skills. The most important thing parents can do is teach their children positive coping mechanisms from a young age. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are a way of relieving pent-up emotional stress, and teens are driven to it because they don’t know another way to release their emotions. Adults need to provide them with healthy alternatives. Talk to your children about stress-relief. If you don’t know what to say, read one of our previous blogs, Teaching Teens Stress Management or Developing Coping Skills in Teens.
  • Build a good relationship. Teens need positive, sustained, and meaningful relationships with their parents and other important adults in their lives. In a recent survey, teens said that adults who “get them” show it by listening to them and paying attention, being honest and dependable, and enjoying their time together. While it’s not easy, if you can build a good relationship with your teen by having an open and non-judgmental relationship, your teen will be more likely to feel like they can come to you when they’re in distress. To learn more about this, read our previous blog, Healthy Adult-Adolescent Relationships.


Signs of Self-Injury

Self-injury is often a secretive habit, but there are signs parents can be looking for:

  • Unexplained injuries, such as cuts, scratches, burns, bruises, etc.
  • Suspicious looking scars
  • Wounds that don’t heal or get worse or are always in the same location
  • Wearing a lot of band aids
  • Acting embarrassed or making excuses for injuries or scars
  • Increased isolation and/or avoiding social activities
  • Collecting sharp tools such as razors, shards of glass, safety pins, etc.
  • Wearing concealing clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts in warm weather
  • Refusing to go into the locker room or change clothes in school
  • Talking about self-injury


In addition to these warning signs, parents should always take note when they see certain behavior changes in their teens. Significant social changes (such as a complete change in friends), withdrawal or isolation from friends or previously enjoyed activities, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or significant emotional changes that last more than two weeks (such as anger or frequent crying) are all indicators that something is wrong in your teen’s life. It could be self-injury, substance abuse, an eating disorder, depression, bullying, or something else entirely. Many times, because our lives are so busy, it becomes easy to think, ‘I see that my child’s behavior has changed, but it’s not really causing any problems within the family right now, so I’ll deal with it later.’ While understandable, this is not a good idea. If you see these behavior changes in your child, it’s time to starting asking questions and get help before the problem gets worse.

Getting Help

If you suspect your teen is cutting, the most important thing you need to do is get him/her professional help. A mental health professional can help your child get to the root of the problem, discover inner strength that can help them heal, and develop healthy ways to cope with life’s problems. The best way to find a good mental health professional is to seek a recommendation from your family doctor or pediatrician’s office.

Some additional tips for parents of teens are:

  • When you talk to your teen, be calm and direct; do not lecture, judge, or get angry.
  • Do not try to force your teen to stop – he or she needs to make that change on his or her own.
  • Be supportive by listening and letting your teen know that he or she is not a bad person and, with help, can find alternate ways to deal with his or her emotions.
  • Encourage your teen to talk their problems out with you, other responsible adults, or friends.
  • Validate your teen’s feelings. Acknowledge that your teen must be in a great deal of pain.
  • Encourage your teen to avoid people, music, and internet sites that glorify self-injury, and to seek friends who share his or her positive interests.
  • Be patient with your teen. Self-harming behavior takes time to develop and will take time to change.
  • Encourage your teen to call the resource below for support anytime he or she needs it.



It’s important to know that if your teen or someone you know is ever feeling suicidal or has a serious injury, you should call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.

For more information about teen self-injury such as cutting and how to get help, go to the web site of The Center for Young Women’s Health at, or call S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self Abuse Finally Ends) at 1-800-DONTCUT (800-366-8288).

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