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A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI) and Self-Harm in Teens


Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) and self-harm in teens is both challenging and heartbreaking for parents to watch. Often, it can be overwhelming to accept that your teen is in pain, but it’s critical to understand the motivations behind NSSI. Your awareness and support can make a monumental difference in your teen’s life, and in some cases, it can even be life-saving.

Understanding NSSI and Self-Harm in Teens

Non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI, refers to the deliberate, self-inflicted harm of one’s own body without suicidal intent. This behavior often manifests in teens cutting themselves or engaging in other forms of self-injury. While NSSI is not performed with the intent to end one’s life, it is still a significant indicator of emotional distress.

Important Facts and Statistics About Self-Harm in Teens

According to Mental Health America,

“Recent studies have found that one-third to one-half of adolescents in the US have engaged in some type of non-suicidal self-injury, although some studies put the rate at 13 to 23 percent.”

Those are alarming statistics. At Evolve, we’re here to help educate parents about NSSI so they can support their teen in stopping their self-harming behaviors for good. 

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm in Teens

The signs of self-harm will vary, but they can include unexplained cuts, burns, or bruises—typically on the wrists, arms, or legs. Behavioral changes like withdrawal from social activities or wearing concealing clothing even in warm weather may also be indicators. Keep an eye out for signs of teens’ low self-esteem, as this can often be a contributing factor to self-injury. Signs of low self esteem can include self-deprecating remarks, failing grades, spending time with abusive or unkind people, or isolation.

While we often think of self-harm as a female behavior, male teens also commonly exhibit NSSI behaviors. Here are some signs of self harm in male adolescents.

Causes and Triggers of Self-Harm in Teens

Some teens engage in self-harm as a way to cope with emotional pain or overwhelming stress. Teens may not yet have the tools to regulate their emotions, which can make daily life extremely difficult. Some factors that might contribute to their self-harming behaviors include:

  • Non-suicidal depression
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • PTSD
  • Emotional trauma
  • Relationship issues
  • Peer pressure
  • School stress

Talking to Your Teen About Their Self-Harming Behavior

Communication is key when approaching your teen about self-harm. Here are a few tips to get the healing process started:

  1. Prepare your teen for a conversation. Ask them to set aside 15-20 minutes to talk to you about some of the behaviors you’re observing. Tell them you can work with their schedule, but you’ll need at least 15 minutes of their undivided attention, with no phones. 
  1. At the agreed-upon time, gently and kindly tell them about the behaviors you’ve been noticing, like unexplained bruises or cuts, isolation, or failing grades. Ask them if there’s anything that’s bothering them. Make sure they understand that you’re not attacking them, that you’re simply worried about them and want to help.
  1. Create a safe space where they can express themselves without fear of judgment. Use open-ended questions and listen actively to understand their feelings and triggers.In this conversation, listening is more important than talking or advice-giving. Make sure to validate their feelings. If they’re self-harming, they’re likely experiencing great emotional distress. 
  1. If they admit to self-harming behaviors, explain to them that self-harming is an addiction that can easily get out of control. Let them know that you want them to get help. See if they’re open to treatment.
  1. If they’re not admitting to NSSI behaviors, but they’re not giving a sufficient explanation for their bruises, cuts, or other behaviors, reach out to us at Evolve today. We can help manage the situation in a timely manner to ensure your teen remains safe. 

Self-Harm Coping Strategies to Help Your Teen

If your teen is self-harming, they need treatment immediately before the behavior gets out of control. In the meantime, encourage healthy coping strategies such as exercise, journaling, therapy, deep breathing, or artistic expression. Participation in these activities with your teen can foster a supportive environment and help deter self-harm while they wait for treatment. 

At Evolve, we also offer preventative psychiatry for teen mental health, where needed. 

Reducing Risk and Relapse of Self-Harming Behavior in Teens

Self-harm is an addiction, and a crucial part of preventing relapse is a well-structured plan that includes coping mechanisms, emergency contacts, and support systems. At Evolve, we’ll address the root causes of self-harming behaviors and help your teen start the process of healing. Then, we’ll focus on developing relapse prevention plans tailored to your teen’s life.

When to Seek Professional Treatment for Your Teen

It’s crucial to seek professional treatment at the first signs of self-harming behaviors,

as this can indicate adolescents at higher risk for suicide. Even in teens who aren’t suicidal, self-harming behaviors are dangerous and can easily get out of hand. Evolve Treatment offers multiple levels of care, from outpatient treatment for adolescent suicide and self-harm to more intensive inpatient programs.

Find Help For Non-Suicidal Self-Injury and Self-Harm in Teens

If you find yourself asking the heartbreaking question, “Why is my teen hurting themselves?” know that help is available. Reach out to Evolve Treatment for expert care specifically designed for teens. 

Have more questions? Evolve’s Parent Guides are designed to support you every step of the way. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I help my teen stop self-harming on my own?

It’s possible to provide some level of support, but professional guidance is often crucial for treatment for teens engaged in self-harm.

Is self-harm just a phase that teens will grow out of?

Not necessarily. Self-harm is often a sign of deeper emotional issues that require attention and should not be considered merely a phase.

Are there healthy alternatives to self-harm for managing emotions?

Yes, healthier coping mechanisms include exercise, artistic expression, and mindfulness techniques. At Evolve, we’ll help your teen learn and implement effective coping mechanisms to remove the need for self-harming behaviors. 

What if my teen resists professional help?

Resistance to treatment is common, but if your teen is self-harming, they need immediate professional help. Contact Evolve today, and we can help get your teen into treatment so they stop harming themselves. 

Can self-harm become an addiction?

Yes, the endorphin release associated with self-harm can make it addictive, which increases the risk of escalation from self-harm to suicide attempts in teens. Remember, you’re not alone. Reach out to Evolve Treatment for expert help tailored to teens dealing with self-harming behaviors—you may save your teen’s life.

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