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By definition, Teen self-harm refers to hurting oneself to relieve pain or distress. The most common forms of this behavior are Teen Cutting and Burning. The least common forms are pulling out bodily hairs, punching walls and ingesting toxic substances or sharp objects. teen cutting

Many of our adolescents today are struggling to cope with extreme levels of stress in school, families and in peer relationships. Some of our youth are over scheduled and being hurried through their adolescent years by us parents and peers alike. Teens have become vulnerable prey to our highly toxic, media-driven world i.e. being in front of a computer, TV screen, or phone for close to six hours a day has become business as usual and more important than spending time with family and friends.

Adolescent girls are constantly being bombarded by images in the media about how they should look and act. Especially for young women, failure to live up to these idealized images can lead to developing an eating disorder and/or engaging in self-harming behavior as a form of self-punishment.

Causes for Self-Harming Behavior

Like substance abuse, adolescent self-harming behavior has no one single cause. We do know that more adolescent females engage in this behavior than males and that self-harming adolescents are rarely suicidal. Most are seeking quick relief from emotional distress.

One major reason why adolescents gravitate towards self-harming behaviors is the endorphin effect. When adolescents cut or burn themselves, endorphins are quickly secreted into their bloodstreams and they experience a numbing or pleasurable sensation. For some of these youth, cutting or burning themselves numbs away unpleasurable thoughts and feelings or they feel “high” from the experience. Like addiction to a particular drug, the endorphin “high” provides fast-acting relief for adolescents from their emotional distress and other stressors in their lives.

Other important reasons as to why teens engage in self-harm include:

  • Feeling emotionally disconnected or invalidated from their parents
  • Wanting to “fit-in” within a particular group of peers that encourages and rewards self-harm
  • Moods of feeling emotionally dead inside or invisible in their parents’ eyes
  • Self-harm makes them feel alive inside and helps confirm their existence
  • It may be used as a coping strategy with overly demanding parents, especially in situations where the father is the dominant voice when it comes to discipline and decision-making

Possible signs of self-harm

  • Cut or burn marks on a teen’s arms, legs and/or abdomen
  • Finding knives, razor blades, box cutters and other sharp objects hidden in your teen’s bedroom
  • Teens are regularly locking themselves in the bedroom/bathroom for long periods of time
  • The family physician, a teacher or other adults observe cut or burn marks, or a teen appears to be regularly removing bodily hairs
  • A teen’s peers cut or burn themselves
  • Siblings inform parents that they found blood or sharp objects in a teen’s bedroom or a brother or sister actually saw the teen self-injure themselves


By far, the most effective treatment is family therapy. A skilled family therapist will be able to help improve family communication, teach conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills and help foster a more meaningful and closer relationship between parents and teens.


Parents can play an integral role in preventing their teen(s) from engaging in this behavior and from joining unhealthy groups of peers. This is where this problem may be the glue that keeps them together.

At home, parents can make spending time together as a family more of a priority. Parents can put the teen(s) in charge of selecting the “family outing.” The family mood needs to be more calm and inviting for the teen. When conflicts arise, family members should come together as a team to solve the problem. Teenagers need to feel a sense of place in the hearts and minds of their parents. They need to feel appreciated and parents need to stop (however hard this may be) and “listen” and “look” at their teen when they are talking. Give your teen your undivided attention. Teens need to know that their parents will be there for them unconditionally.

It’s the parents’ responsibility to create firm boundaries between their work and family lives. One way to help foster a more meaningful connection between parents and teens is to share family stories. Parents need to lend an ear to their children about their struggles and high points they experience in their adolescent years.

Self-harming behavior can be dangerous, particularly if the teen is abusing alcohol and other drugs. Parents need to take a firm stand and set consistent limits with these behaviors. Parents also need to set a model for their children by avoiding  irresponsible use of alcohol or unhealthy displays when dealing with stress.

It’s a parents right to meet their teen’s friends, as well as their parents, and voice their concerns when warranted. This shouldn’t be anything new. Most parents meet their child’s friend(s) as well as their parents. Just because your child is a teen shouldn’t stop this formality. Remember who the parent is…YOU. Let’s not forget that because EVERY child needs one.

Should a parent discover that their teen is engaging in risky and dangerous behavior such as self-harm, they should rest assured that a family therapist will be able to skillfully assist the family and teen with this serious issue.

For more on this subject read: Cutting/Self Injury Teen Addiction Rehab