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Signs of Self-Harm and 3 Risk Factors

November 16, 2015

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When you think of self-harm, do you think only about physical harm? Head banging? Cutting? Burning? Self-harm is not only physical but also psychologically harmful and becomes more damaging over longer periods. Difficult feelings from emotional pain are usually dealt with by inflicting physical wounds or indirect self-harm.

It’s estimated that about one in 12 teens engage in self-injurious behaviors. In the United States, an estimated 10 percent of young people self-harm, with girls being at a greater risk for self-harm due to repressed emotional distress. 

Signs of Self-Harm 

You may ask yourself why anyone would want to self-harm. Most people think it’s done to seek attention; however, teens often self-harm to make themselves feel better and cope with emotional pain. 

Self-harm is a maladaptive way to cope with unbearable tension and guilt, to distract from overwhelming emotions and difficult situations, and to feel something besides numbness. The following are signs of direct and indirect self-harm and what to look for: 

Direct Self-Harm 

  • Skin cutting
  • Skin burning 
  • Ingesting poisonous toxic chemicals
  • Hitting oneself/head banging 

Indirect Self-Harm 

  • Gambling 
  • Substance abuse
  • Extreme risk-taking
  • Starvation or binge eating
  • Staying in an abusive relationship 
  • Engaging in unsafe sex
  • Reckless driving 

What to Look For 

  • Scars from burns or cuts
  • Bruises/ unhealed wounds
  • Isolation and extreme irritability
  • Being alone in a room or closed-in space for a long period of time
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, no matter the climate
  • Having many “accidents” to explain their injuries
  • Blood stains on clothing/towels/bedding

3 Risk Factors of Self-Harm 

It’s a misconception that self-harm is done to seek attention or to act out if a teen isn’t getting their way. However, prolonged self-harming is usually a sign of underlying issues that go much deeper than attention-seeking behavior. The following are three risk factors of self-harm:

1) Childhood Trauma 

Childhood trauma such as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect often plays a primary role in self-harm or self-injurious behavior. Numerous research studies show that the majority of teens who self-harm have experienced sexual and/or physical abuse, with about 90 percent of this behavior occurring in teen girls. 

2) Social Problems 

Whether it’s being a victim of bullying, feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, guilt, shame, relationship struggles, personal identity issues, unstable sexual identity, having friends who self-injure or promiscuity, teens who experience these social problems are often at a higher risk for self-harm behavior than teens who don’t struggle with these issues. 

3) Mental Health Problems 

Often a mental health disorder contributes to self-harming behavior. The most common co-occurring mental disorders for teens who engage in self-harm include:

Getting Help for Your Teen 

Whether a teen is struggling with childhood trauma, social problems, and/or mental health problems, self-harm is a serious condition that should be cared for immediately by experienced mental health professionals. 

At Teen Treatment Center, our board-certified staff has experience treating teens, especially teen girls, for self-harm and self-injurious behaviors (except eating disorders) along with substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. 

If your teen is struggling with self-harm, we can help. Call us today at (844)319-5239. Our admissions counselors would be glad to answer any questions you may have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays.

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