Why Do Individuals Self-Harm?

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | August 12, 2021

Self-harm is a common behavior, particularly among young people. It’s estimated that approximately 18% of adolescents overall have harmed themselves intentionally. Females are at greatest risk of engaging in self-injury, with nearly 24% of female adolescents having self-harmed.

Although any person can self-harm at any age, this behavior often begins during the pre-teen and teenage years, when adolescents go through many changes and face greater pressure to fit in. A teen might only self-harm a few times and then never do it again. However, self-harming can become a long-term behavior if the underlying cause is never addressed.

Most parents report that discovering their children’s self-harming behavior is one of the most upsetting experiences in parenting. They often experience a lot of anxiety and confusion, along with feelings of anger, sadness and helplessness. Self-injury is a complex behavior that is difficult to understand for both the parent and the child. The good news is, you and your child don’t have to face this challenge alone. Many mental health professionals are specially trained to treat self-harming behaviors and teach adolescents healthier ways to cope.

If you’ve discovered that your child engages in self-injurious behaviors, the first step to healing is to get help from a qualified mental health professional. There are many reasons why someone self-harms, and an evaluation by an experienced mental health professional is recommended.

Suicidal and non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors are often seen together, but they are not the same. Engaging in mental health treatment can help your child gain insight into reasons for self-harming and learn replacement behaviors that are healthier coping skills. Treatment can also help parents gain a better understanding of self-injurious behaviors.

Here, you’ll learn the meaning of self-harm, warning signs and common reasons people hurt themselves. You’ll also see what to do if you find out your loved one is practicing self-harm.

Table of Contents

What Is the Definition of Self-Harm?

Self-harm is when a person intentionally injures one’s own body. It includes non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), a deliberate act to hurt oneself without any intent or desire to die.

People who engage in self-harming behaviors often describe various reasons for their actions. For example, they might say they self-harm to deal with emotional pain.

There are many ways that people engage in self-harming behaviors. Some people self-harm in a private and ritualistic manner, while others may engage in self-harming behaviors in the presence of others. A person might carve a word or symbol in their arm, for example, or create cuts that form a pattern on their skin. This behavior has many different forms, including:

  • Cutting
  • Carving
  • Scratching
  • Biting
  • Hitting
  • Head-banging
  • Burning
  • Hair-pulling
  • Tattooing
  • Piercing or picking skin
  • Bruising

The most common form of self-harm is cutting the skin, but a person might use any methods to cause injuries.

What Are Common Reasons for Self-Harm?

It is hard to understand why someone would intentionally hurt oneself, but there are many possible causes for self-harm. By understanding what may be driving your loved one to engage in self-harm, you can help them participate in treatment that meets their specific needs.

Although every person has different reasons for self-harming, here are some common causes:

1. Painful Emotions

Self-harm is often triggered by a distressful event and an inability to cope with intense emotions in a healthy way. Feelings of overwhelming loneliness or sadness may be why one has an impulse to self-harm to distract themselves from the pain. A person may not have the coping skills to handle these strong emotions or decrease their intensity to a more manageable level. Any emotion that feels too difficult to deal with can trigger a desire to self-harm.

Having experienced trauma can also cause a person to self-harm. Some people might use self-harm to take their minds off painful memories or feelings related to the traumatic event. Working with a mental health therapist can help a teen learn to cope with a traumatic experience, whether it happened yesterday or several years ago.

2. A Sense of Isolation

Adolescence is a period of many biological and psychological changes. All of these changes can leave a teenager feeling lost or confused about one’s identity. It’s vital for teens to feel accepted by others, and they are especially sensitive to rejection.

Without feeling understood and accepted, teens might instead feel isolated and alone with their problems. Self-harming may be a way for a teen to temporarily escape from the pain of loneliness or show others a need for help. According to a study from Frontiers in Psychology, feeling isolated or unloved was one of the most common triggers for self-harming behavior.

3. Exposure to Self-Harm

Sometimes teens self-harm after being exposed to this behavior. They might have friends who talk about self-harming or watch videos that influence their actions. According to the Frontiers in Psychology article, teens reported reading blogs that made them less afraid to self-harm and viewing other individuals’ scars on social media sites. When peers make it seem less scary to engage in self-injurious behaviors, it can trigger the urge to try it.

4. Numbness

Many different factors can cause a person to feel numb emotionally or unable to focus on the present. Depression, anxiety and too much stress can make someone numb or too emotionally tired to feel anything. Sometimes, experiencing something painful, like losing a loved one, can cause a sense of emptiness and detachment from others. To some teens, self-harming is a way to feel something again, even if it’s physical pain.

5. A Need for Control

When emotions seem too overwhelming and confusing, a person can feel out of control. A difficult life situation that can’t be changed can also make people feel like they don’t have any control over their lives. For some people, self-harm provides a sense of power when everything else feels chaotic. A person might also use self-injury to gain control of something painful or to feel in control of one’s body.

6. Emotional Expression

Emotions are complex and can be challenging to put into words. Sometimes, it’s hard to pinpoint what one is feeling, and other times, there are no words to describe the pain. Some adolescents may self-harm to communicate intense emotions without needing to find the right words or discuss private thoughts with their parents. It can also be a way to ask for help without actually having to ask for it.

7. Self-Punishment

Some people practice self-harm as a way to punish themselves. They might have low-self esteem and feel bad about themselves or be highly critical of themselves and their actions. Through self-harm, some teens might believe they are getting deserved physical pain while at the same time releasing emotional suffering.

Signs of Self-Harm to Watch For

You are most likely to find the signs of self-harm on your child’s arms, legs or torso, though they could be anywhere on the body. Note that you might not notice the signs right away because it is common for teens to hide their scars from their parents. For example, your child might wear long sleeves when it’s very hot to cover scars. In any case, you’ll want to look out for the following warning signs:

  • Your child exhibits behaviors such as keeping their arms or legs covered to hide marks or scars.
  • You repeatedly notice unexplained scratches, cuts, burns or other marks on your child’s body.
  • Your child has difficulty coping with intense anger, sadness or other emotions.
  • Your child mentions a friend or acquaintance who engages in self-injurious behaviors.
  • You find scars on your child that form a pattern.
  • Your child collects sharp objects, such as knives or razors, without explanation.
  • Your teen makes excuses about injuries found on the body.

If you find out that your child engages in self-injurious behaviors, it’s essential to take action. Even with NSSI, the injury could get infected or be more damaging than the person intended and require medical treatment such as stitches. Self-harm also indicates emotional pain that could coincide or lead to life-threatening behaviors if not addressed.

What to Do if a Loved One Self-Harms

Discovering that your child engages in self-harm can feel frightening and heartbreaking. No parent wants to find out that their child is suffering enough to hurt themselves. Still, know that there is hope for much brighter days ahead. With your support and professional treatment, your child can develop healthier ways to cope with life’s problems and the intense emotions one feels.

To help you head down the right path with your child, here are steps to address self-harming behavior together:

1. Contact your Healthcare Provider and Mental Health Professional

Self-harming behavior is a serious matter and should be addressed with a qualified mental health professional. If your child already has a working relationship with mental health providers, you should notify them immediately. If not, you should seek a licensed clinician who has experience treating adolescents and self-injurious behavior to evaluate and treat the behavior.

Your family doctor may also need to assess your child’s injury to determine if the wound needs medical treatment.

2. Acknowledge Your Emotions

It isn’t easy to learn that your child is engaging in self-harming behaviors, and you may feel many different emotions, ranging from anger to guilt. Be sure to take time for yourself to identify and express your emotions in a positive way.

If you feel overwhelmed, you might talk to a counselor or a supportive friend. It’s crucial to reach out for help if you’re having difficulty coping so you can offer your best support. It will be helpful to be calm and non-judgmental when you have a conversation about self-harm with your child.

3. Validate Your Child’s Feelings

One of the helpful actions you can take is to approach your loved one in a non-judgmental way and remind them you care. Plan to listen carefully so you can understand what they are going through.

You might start the conversation by saying that you suspect they are engaging in self-harm and that you have concerns because you care. You can ask them to help you understand what they are feeling and validate those feelings without validating the behaviors. Express your concern and desire to help.

Show that you understand how difficult emotional pain can be to handle alone, and remind your child that one’s feelings matter. By validating your child’s feelings, you’ll invite your child to open up and talk to you about the issues driving the self-injurious behavior.

4. Learn About Self-Harm

Set aside some time to learn as much as you can about self-harming. Research different causes for this behavior, treatment options and ways to be supportive. You might also read about other people’s experiences with self-harm and how they overcame this behavior. The more you learn and understand, the better prepared you’ll be to help your child heal.

5. Ask About DBT

Once you’re in touch with a mental health center, ask if it offers dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a specialized form of cognitive behavioral therapy used to help people regulate their emotions. This therapeutic method has been proven to help individuals overcome self-injurious behaviors. According to a 2021 study, nearly 94% of the study’s participants stopped self-harming behaviors within a year of receiving DBT.

DBT involves four different stages, and each level has specific goals. Here’s what the various treatment stages look like for a client who engages in self-harm:

  1. Help the client gain control of their behaviors.
  2. Help the client explore and experience their emotions fully and identify negative thoughts and beliefs.
  3. Focus on developing problem-solving skills, coping skills, a healthy lifestyle and self-reliance.
  4. Help the client find deeper meaning and feel connected to the greater whole.

Overall, DBT teaches teens how to recognize, understand, and accept their emotions. It gives them the skills to view emotions logically and empowers them to choose how they’ll handle stressful situations. At Hillside®, we offer a DBT program designed to help teens and their families cope with emotional distress, overcome self-harming behaviors and improve their quality of life.

6. Check in Often

Make time to listen. Remind your child that you’re available to talk about anything and that your love is unconditional. Create a safe and non-judgmental environment where your child feels comfortable expressing feelings and thoughts. Encourage your child to stay motivated to get help for self-harming behaviors.

7. Be Patient and Positive

Whatever is causing your child to self-harm needs to be identified and treated. This process can take time, and there may be some ups and downs along the way. Try to be patient and accept that healing doesn’t happen overnight. Keep in mind that many people have successfully overcome self-injurious behaviors, and there’s hope for your child to live a happy, healthy life — no matter what things look like right now.

Contact Hillside for Help

Self-harming behavior can have serious consequences, so it’s important not to wait for things to get better on their own. Mental health professionals are ready to help your child and family uncover what’s causing emotional pain and teach healthy ways to manage emotions.

At Hillside, our clinicians are intensively trained in DBT and specialize in working with children and teens who engage in self-injurious behavior. We also understand how important parents are in a child’s recovery and encourage parents to be involved in their child’s treatment however they can.

We know that self-harming behavior can be scary for parents. We’re here to support you and offer hope and healing. To learn more about our treatment options for children and adolescents, please contact us today.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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Current Version
May 9, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
August 12, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke
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