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What to do when your teen is self-harming.

Parenting a child who is self-harming can feel overwhelming, but you are not alone. 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 (1). Though it can be common, it’s a dangerous behavior, and it’s important to take it seriously. There are clear steps you can begin right away. 

At Joon, we provide therapy to 13–26 year olds every day. So we understand how scary this is for you and how out of control your teen may feel—we can help.

Katey Nicolai, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
VP of Clinical Services

Understanding teen self-harm.

Self-harm is when someone purposely hurts their body, usually in the context of emotional distress. Common examples of self-harm in teens include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Skin-picking
  • Biting
  • Head-banging 
  • Hitting oneself

It’s important to understand that self-harm is not always suicidal in nature, though engaging in self-harm can be a risk factor for suicide. Self-harm can also occur in other contexts, including developmental delays, OCD, and autism. Still, self-harm warrants urgent mental health support in these situations. 

Discovering that your teen has been self-harming is scary and upsetting, but your next step as a parent is clear: your teen needs urgent help and mental health support.

Is it time to get support for your 13-26 year old? We’re here to help.

Why would my teen self-harm?

Teens usually engage in self-harm for one or a combination of three reasons:

  1. <h3>To regulate or relieve extreme emotional distress.</h3>

Though it may seem counterintuitive, experiencing physical pain has been shown to relieve emotional pain temporarily (this is even seen neurologically occurring in the brains of people who self-harm). This is the most common reason teens cite for self-harm.

  1. <h3>To stop feeling “numbness” or losing touch with their body.</h3>

Experiencing depression, trauma, or extreme anxiety can sometimes make a teen “shut down” emotionally. When this happens over time, the feeling of “numbness” or “unreality” can become very distressing. Self-harm can provide some temporary relief from this.

  1. <h3>To communicate the intensity of their pain.</h3>

Teens in distress may have a hard time putting words to their mental health struggles. They may feel like they’re not being heard or can’t express themselves accurately to get support. Self-harm can be one of the ways teens show others that they are in emotional pain.

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What to do when your teen is self-harming

When you find out your teen is self-harming, there are clear steps to follow right away:

  1. <h3>Take them seriously</h3>

Even if this behavior feels out of character, or if you believe it’s a “phase” or being influenced by friends’ behavior, it’s always important to take self-harm seriously. Remember that attention-seeking for mental health support is not negative. Express to your teen that you will remain consistently attentive to resolving this until they are safe.

  1. <h3>Get mental health support.</h3>

Self-harm is a clear indicator that your teen needs mental health support. Seek therapy that is specifically oriented to teens and young adults, and that relies on evidence-based treatments, like DBT, that have shown effectiveness in relieving self-harm and extreme emotional distress, like therapy at Joon.

  1. <h3>Create safety plans.</h3>

Your mental health professional can help with setting up Mental Health Safety Plans that include how to make your home environment safe, how to support your teen, and how to pay attention to escalations of self-harm and suicidality. Safety Plans should be shared and updated regularly.

  1. <h3>Have emergency resources ready.</h3>

Keep emergency numbers, like 988, ready. Have a plan in place if self-harm ever requires medical attention, becomes worse, or you suspect your teen has been thinking about suicide in addition to self-harm.

Joon people in circles

Our care team, just as unique as you.

Meet our licensed therapists, skilled in evidence-based methods and just as diverse as the teens they support.

Therapy works for teens who self-harm.

Research has demonstrated that therapy helps relieve self-harm in teens (2). An evidence-based therapeutic approach that helps teens find relief fastest is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for Adolescents, or DBT-A. DBT-A targets the underlying causes of self-harm by helping teens with emotion regulation, finding coping strategies, and resolving extreme distress. 

Finding a therapist who specializes in providing evidence-based care to teens is ideal. Therapy at Joon incorporates all of these elements, in a mobile platform that offers additional skill support personalized to each individual. Self-harm is one of the most commonly treated symptoms at Joon, and our experienced therapists are ready to help your teen.

Bar chart showing recovery rates. On left, label reads "Clinical Anxiety" and shows a green bar with Joon labeled at 75% and a gray bar with "Other therapy in-person" at 43%. On the right the label reads "Clinical Depression" and shows a turquoise bar for Joon labeled 71% and a gray bar labeled "Other therapy in-person" at 27%.
As shown here, recovery data means being below the clinical symptom cutoff at least half the prior four weeks. In comparison, a study in 2017 reported 43% recovery after outpatient CBT for anxiety, and in 2009, 27% recovery after outpatient CBT for depression.

Therapy at Joon helps teens with serious mental health symptoms like clinical depression and anxiety. You can read more about our latest data on the effectiveness of Joon for treating 13-26 year olds.

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