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Self-Harming Behaviors: How To Recognize Them and How To Help

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Self-harm, or inflicting physical harm onto one’s body to ease emotional distress, is not uncommon in today’s youth and teens. In fact, about 15% of young people engage in self-harm and that number is rising, especially among teenage girls.

There are many forms of self-harm and those who suffer also tend to struggle with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, physical abuse or other serious concerns or psychological disorders. As a mental health professional who has dealt with many youth who engage in daily self-harm, I feel it’s important for loved ones to be educated on the many ways in which youth can self-harm. By educating yourself, you will be able to not only be aware of ways in which you child might be in danger but you will be able to help them manage their trials more effectively.

Self- Harming Behaviors and How To Recognize Them


Many of my clients, both young and old, pick at themselves.

Whether it is picking at their fingernails, legs, arms or face, this is a less identifiable form of self-harm. For many people who choose to self-harm this way, it is seen as a way to decrease their anxiety. For some, the picking has a strong connection with emotional relief which results in severe scabbing due to the frequency in which they seek relief.

Sadly, many times, this form leaves behind physical scars.


Cutting has become one of the most recognized ways in which people self-harm resulting in individuals literally making small cuts on his or her body, usually the arms and legs.

Sadly, this form of self-harm is common to youth as they have either done it themselves or they know someone who has in their social circles.

Many times, youth cut in areas that are less visible like upper arms, thighs and sometimes stomach.

Youth can cut with any household thing so be aware of anything that might be out of place or missing if you are nervous your child is self-harming. If you find knives, light bulbs, glass, pens, pencils, paper clips or other sharp objects missing, start a conversation.

A common place we have found youth cut is in the shower due to privacy and cleanliness.

The outcome of this behavior can be devastating and sadly in too many cases, this behavior escalates into suicide attempts.

If you feel like your child is cutting, click here for more help. (

Hair Pulling

Self mutilation, like hair pulling, is when someone can't resist the urge to pull out their hair. They may pull out the hair on their head or in other places, such as their eyebrows or eyelashes. Often times, when serious, the results can be permanent bald spots.

Hair pulling and other self-mutilation practices are more common in teenagers and young adults, and tends to affect girls more often than boys.

Like all self harm, youth experience a euphoric feeling as they pull. Their distress is so high that the only thing that relieves it is pulling. Many times youth do this alone, and never around others, so it’s imperative to be on the lookout if you notice balding or thinning of hair.

Erasing and Rubbing

With social media trends, like Tide Pod eating, it seems as though youth find new ways to get into trouble every year.

Erasing is one of the new ways in which a person will self-harm as they will use a simple eraser to rub an isolated area on their body over and over, often leaving a mark. Individuals can rub on various parts of their bodies, typically again, in places not easily seen. As a parent, it’s important to be on the lookout for any new or deformed marks on their bodies.

Punching and Hitting

This method of self-harm is popular amongst male youth, however, incidents of female youth engaging in it is growing.

In this form of self-harm, individuals will punch or bang their head in various ways: on the ground, wall or any hard surface they have access to and will oftentimes call themselves names or yell out obscenities.

They will continue the aggression until it grows to a boiling point. In residential treatment centers, staff often puts clients who self harm this way in physical restraints. This kind of self harm can be deadly if it progresses or intensifies too far.

Brain injury can have lifetime effect and leave permanent damage. If you see your child engaging in this, stop them by any means.

What Do I Do If I Find Self-Harming or Suspect Self- Harm

As a parent you want to protect your child, but you might feel at a loss in trying to save them from themselves. If you are finding signs of self- harm with your child or might suspect behaviors like above, below are some steps in which you can communicate and help your child who is or might be self-harming:

1. Keep An Active Eye Keep watching and noticing.

As a parent, you need to be actively involved in watching your child’s behavior so you can start meaningful and life-saving conversations. If you notice burn marks, cuts, bruising or other physical deformities, put more time and effort into your child's life.

2. Do Not Ask Why

When someone self-harms, they might not have words to describe their pain — the self-harm is an outward display of their inner emotions. Asking why will not give you the explanation you are looking for, and if your child doesn’t have the answer, this line of questioning will only make them feel uncomfortable and ashamed.

Instead, ask if there is anything you can do to help them feel better and mostly, listen to them.

Validation is one of the most important elements to learn before parenting any child. You are acknowledging your child’s emotions, not diminishing them. You don’t have to agree with their feelings — you just have to be supportive. Everyone deserves to be accepted without judgment. Validation helps your child feel heard, acknowledged, and understood.

3. Talk in A Safe Space

When you talk to your youth, make sure it’s never in public (or in front of other loved ones).

Talk to your child in a quiet location and offer a kind, loving approach. It is helpful not to make them feel more uncomfortable, so pick a place they feel in their own element and respect their boundaries.

4. Ask If They Feel Safe or If They Can Be Safe

If your child has hurt themselves, then they are in pain and I don’t mean just physical pain, they are in emotional pain.

Self-harm usually isn’t a suicide attempt, but suicidal thoughts can accompany the self-harm. There is a strong link between previous self-harm and suicide. So, simply ask your child if they are feeling safe or they can stay safe.

Do not ignore red flags or verbal cues from your child. If they are having suicidal thoughts speak to a professional.

5. Talk To Your Child About First Aid

By inquiring if bandages, an antibiotic ointment or any other type of first aid is needed, you are starting a dialogue.

This may open up an opportunity for your child to show you more of their injuries or tell you something about their pain. It is important your child knows they should wash their wounds with soap and water and continue to keep them clean to avoid an infection. Explain the signs of an infection and the importance of seeking medical attention if needed.

6. Remove Obvious Items For Self-Harm

If your child has to go to the effort of finding something to use for self-harm, rather than grabbing a knife from the kitchen drawer, it may give them time to think about what they are doing and change his or her mind.

Lock sharp items away, take them with you or hide them, but don’t leave them out for easy access.

7. Do Not Punish Them

Self-harm is not an act of rebellion or attention seeking behavior; your child is hurting themselves because they are in a great deal of emotional pain.

The truth is, your child does not want to hurt themselves.

Part of the healing process will involve setbacks. Be prepared for these and never tell your child you are disappointed in them for self-harming. This will only create a barrier in your relationship.

Honesty can create a bond between you and your child. If you don’t know what to say or do, be truthful and tell your child you don’t know how to help them. They will accept this, because not knowing what to do is exactly how they feel.

Don’t make their pain worse. Love them, nurture them and listen to them.

Self-Harm and Getting Help

Stopping self-harming behavior isn’t easy, and it’ll take time.

Your child may have setbacks. The best approach if a setback occurs is to offer nonjudgmental support. Research shows that shame, criticism, or overreaction when parents see a wound causes children to withdraw back into self-harming behaviors.

If you think your child is self-harming, make an appointment with a therapist for a professional assessment, and support them in practicing healthy coping strategies.

Overcoming self-harm isn’t easy, but, with effective intervention, your child can stop these behaviors and get better. The key is to get help and this is where we can help!

If you need someone to talk to about anything relating to this topic, contact us directly with question/concerns you may have about self-harm.

We are here for you and your family.

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