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What Parents Need to Know About Self-Harm

Let’s start with what self-harm is. Self-harm is intentional injury to self. Self-harm, also known as non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors, is not the same as suicide or suicidal behaviors. The intention behind self-harming behavior is not to take one’s life but rather to find a way to cope with the emotional pain that people are experiencing.


Self-harm is not a diagnosable mental health disorder. However, it is often a symptom of a diagnosable mental health disorder, such as depression. Self-harm may include behaviors such as biting, cutting, slapping, hitting, scratching, bruising, and burning oneself.

Unfortunately, research is limited in this area. However, practitioners have noticed the severe increase in self-harming behaviors in clients coming into medical and mental health facilities. In 2012, the US National Library of Medicine noted that adolescent girls engaged in self-harming behaviors 3 times the rate of boys. They also noted that ninth-grade girls appeared to be most at risk.

Teens at Risk

As teens appear to represent the highest rate in populations for self-harm, it is essential for parents to assess risk in their own teens. Parents need to help their children get the support they need as early as possible.

Behavior Patterns

Self-harm is a cyclical behavior – meaning, teens will return over and over to this behavior. Additionally, the more intense their emotional pain becomes, the more risk they will take when self-harming to numb the pain. Self-harming behaviors can become addictive which makes it difficult to reduce and/or eliminate the behavior.

As a result, it is essential to identify risk factors in your children. Some risk factors may include:

1. Bullying

2. Isolated kids/teens

3. Poor self-talk and negative, hopeless language

4. Sudden changes in attire

5. Consistently wearing weather inappropriate outfits

6. Extensive changes in peer relationships

7. Increase in depressive symptoms

8. Spontaneous cuts, bruises, and marks

9. Decreasing emotional stability

Correlation to Suicide

It is necessary to note that while self-harming behaviors are not the same as suicidal behaviors, extensive and longstanding self-harming behaviors can evolve into suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviors, particularly if the emotional pain severely increases or worsens. The American Psychological Association (APA) noted research done by psychologist Jennifer Muehlenkamp, PhD of the University of Wisconsin that indicated that 17% of adolescents in their study had engaged in self-harming behaviors at least once. While more up-to-date research is needed, results have shown that self-harming behaviors continue to increase in teens.

Long Term Effects of Self-Harm

The physical aspects of self-harm can lead to long term physical injuries to the body including broken bones, permanent damage to the skin including scarring, and infections to cuts and wounds if individuals do not get required medical attention when necessary.

On the emotional side, if the emotional pain is not resolved, high-risk behaviors can escalate. Individuals’ maladaptive behaviors can worsen leading to further mental health diagnoses and more intensive treatments.

In Closing, Get Support

So, what parents need to know about self-harm is that they need to increase their attention towards their children, asking deeper questions and taking the time to listen, observe, and notice. Do not engage in shaming responses, judgements, harsh disciplines, criticisms, and threats as these behaviors only worsen the emotional pain for children and teens, and reinforces their beliefs about why they had not shared their experiences with you earlier.

Parents need to get support immediately if they start noticing red flags, even if the children/teens won’t share more details with them. Clinicians understand that this is a scary experience for parents and the journey can be extremely overwhelming. However, don’t allow your frustrations to be projected onto your children and teens as they are often very emotionally fragile at this point. This can be a difficult situation because parents do often feel left out of their children’s lives, but parents must remember that with proper help and support, these relationships can be rebuilt.

Contact us today to schedule a free 15-minute consult for your child or to get support for yourself. Prolific Life works with teens and parents for individual therapy in New Jersey. However, if you are a parent who could use some support, Prolific Life has a virtual support group that is available for parents to learn more and connect with other parents in similar situations. You may register for the next group here.

Photocred: Toa Heftiba/

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