Self-harm is the practice of hurting or damaging one’s body in a way that results in pain and injury. It can come in the form of cutting, burning, scratching, or tearing hair out. There are many motives for why people commit self-harm. Some people do it because they feel “numb” and harming themselves makes them feel something, even if the feelings aren’t good. Other people commit harm to punish themselves because of perceived low self-worth.
Studies on the rates of self-harm are as comprehensive as they can be; however, they are often underreported because both teens and adults try to hide the behavior. One analysis of self-injury which covered more than 40 countries found that 17% of people conduct self-harm during their lifetime and the average age of the first incident is 13.
Whether you are a parent, teacher, or friend, it can be hard to identify the signs of self-harm in someone you love. Look for these 15 signs of self-harm to identify key red flags.
1. Unexplained Cuts, Bruises, or Wounds
One of the most pronounced warning signs of self-harm is the appearance of cuts or bruises that have no real explanation. Do these cuts persist over time? Do they get worse or move into new locations? These are signs that the wounds aren’t just accidental.
2. Wearing Clothes That Cover the Skin (Even in Hot Weather)
While many teens go through phases where they like to wear oversized hoodies or baggy clothes, this could be a sign that they are trying to cover up their scares or evidence of self-harm. If this person recently started dating someone new, this could also be a warning sign of an abusive relationship.
3. Avoiding Situations Where They Need to Reveal Skin
Does this person avoid going to the pool or beach where they would need to wear a swimsuit? Do they try to stay inside during the summer where there is air conditioning? They may be trying to keep their bodies covered to avoid showing any signs of self-harm.
4. Impulsive or Unstable Behavior
Self-harm rarely works in a silo. Look for signs of impulsive behavior and changes to the personality of your friend or student. If you know this person has committed self-harm before, behavioral changes could warn you that they have started hurting themselves again or have at least thought about it.
5. Changes in Eating or Sleeping Patterns
Additional signs of emotional distress come from teens changing their eating or sleeping patterns. Look for a loss of appetite, staying up late, insomnia, or needing too much sleep. Many of these physical symptoms are the result of mental turmoil.
6. Trouble Controlling Emotions
If this person is experiencing a period of turmoil, they may have a hard time controlling their emotions. In some cases, self-harm might seem like the only thing they can do.
“People sometimes harm themselves because by doing so, they are able to gain a subjective sense of control over chaotic internal emotions and thoughts,” the team at MentalHealth.net writes.
Look for outbursts, overreactions, and unusual emotional responses as potential signs of self-harm.
7. Difficulty with Other Relationships
It’s natural for teens to clash with parents as they get older or have problems with some friends as they learn more about themselves, but be careful if this person suddenly can’t handle any of their relationships and is having problems with multiple friends and teachers.
8. Suddenly Spending Time Alone
Withdrawing from social groups could mean your teen is spending more time home alone or even outside the house alone. The fact is teens need friends more than adults do, especially when they experience emotional turmoil.
“Being among peers during times of stress may offer adolescents an open, supportive, and rewarding space which may help dampen the emotional turbulence that adolescence can bring,” researchers from Australia’s Murdoch and Griffith universities found.
9. Expressing Low Self-Worth
When you encounter this person, do they have low self-esteem? Do they specifically avoid trying out for things because they think they aren’t good enough or berate themselves if they make mistakes? They may turn to self-harm as a way to punish themselves for not being “good enough” in their eyes.
10. Secrecy Related to Items and Activities
Is this person suddenly hiding items they bought or activities they do? Are they unable to account for their time or only give vague answers? This secrecy could mean they don’t want you to know what they are doing or who they are with.
11. Poor Grades and Disinterest in School
If a student loses all interest in school and neglects their grades, there could be a more significant problem than a lack of desire to learn. There could be major changes affecting their home lives or emotional turmoil that makes learning seem impossible or meaningless.
12. Loss of Interest in Sports or Hobbies
Many teens struggle during the school year but still maintain a healthy interest in sports, hobbies, and after school activities. If there is a steep drop-off in these interests, especially ones that your child or friend used to love, it could be a sign that they are not well and using the time away from these hobbies to commit self-harm.
13. Little or No Communication
Has this person stopped talking to you or the people who they are closest to? Will they give minimal answers to questions or won’t respond to texts or messages at all? This is particularly worrying if you previously had a close relationship with this person that had an open channel of communication.
14. Blood Stains on Bedding, Clothes, or Towels
While not all self-harm involves cutting, drops of blood around their room and on their clothes could be a sign of self-harm. You could also find this through behavioral changes where your teen insists on doing their own laundry or frequently washes sheets and towels themselves so you won’t notice.
15. Keeping Sharp Objects on Hand
Look for a fascination with sharp objects and other items like lighters that could cause harm. This person might hoard several of these items, always keep one on hand, or hide them from you in locked boxes or secret areas of their room.
What Do You Do When You Notice Signs of Self-Harm?
If you suspect you know someone is committing self-harm, develop a plan to make sure they get the care they need. First, never act out in anger. Yelling, threatening, or berating this person could drive them to harm themselves more frequently or more severely. It also emphasizes their belief that they have no value or need to be punished. Instead, act with compassion.
Teachers and friends should speak with parents about the situation to confirm if there are additional signs of self-harm that they noticed. Additionally, your job as a friend, teacher, or loved one is not to be a psychiatrist. If you suspect someone close to you is committing self-harm, encourage them to get help or set up a meeting with a mental health professional.
Remember, you can’t force someone to get help or change. This person might push back against your efforts or lash out in anger. Make sure you focus on how much you care about this person and want them to be healthy, rather than the negative or harmful behaviors they exhibit.
At Family Resources, we offer family counseling services and can make recommendations for your teen and for you as a family. This counseling is free for most families and is affordable for all. If you need professional intervention to help your family, we are here for you. Visit our counseling page for phone numbers to set up an appointment near you.