Self-harm is a concerning behaviour exhibited by many young adults experiencing mental health difficulties. It is highly dangerous, and parents may not know how to react if they find out that their child is self-harming.
Self-harm occurs when a person purposely hurts themselves. This can be in many forms, such as cutting, pulling hair, or burning. However, self-harm can also be present in other behaviours, such as:
- Abusing drugs or alcohol
- Not eating or overeating as a form of punishment
- Risky sexual behaviour
- Purposefully seeking situations where there is a risk of getting hurt
Research has found that most people who self-harm are young women between the ages of 15 and 24. However, young men and adults may also self-harm, and the signs should not be ignored.
Many young adults use self-harm as a coping mechanism to deal with mental health problems or other societal pressures, such as bullying or school. Others self-harm as a way to feel more connected to the world, their bodies, or to punish themselves for something. Often, self-harming offers young adults a temporary relief enabling them to feel something different from their negative emotions.
Whatever the reason, self-harm is a challenging topic for both parents and their children to discuss. For this reason, many young adults and teenagers who engage in this behaviour try to keep it secret from their parents or caregivers.
Causes of Self-Harm
Teenagers and young adults may self-harm for a combination of reasons, such as those noted above. In many instances, they also self-harm when faced with a stressful or upsetting situation, such as:
- Parental divorce
- Academic or exam stress
- Low self-esteem
- Body dysmorphia
Studies have shown that bullied teenagers and children are around three times more likely to harm themselves than other children. Self-harm can also be a symptom of several mental health conditions, such as a personality disorder, especially borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder (SUD).
Signs of Self-Harm
Although young people will attempt to keep their self-harm a secret, there are many signs that parents and caregivers can be aware of:
- Unexplained injuries – Young adults may have cuts, bruises, and burns that they cannot easily explain, and they may try to make repeated excuses for these injuries.
- Covering their body – Teenagers who self-harm on their arms or legs may wear long sleeve tops, long trousers, or tights, even in hot weather, to cover up their injuries or scars. They may also refuse to change their clothes in front of other people in fear of revealing their scars, for example, in changing rooms at school.
- Changes in eating habits – Some young adults may use food as a form of self-harm, under or overeating as a way to punish themselves for their perceived failures. Dramatic changes in eating habits could indicate this.
- Isolation – Young adults struggling with self-harm may experience feelings of guilt and shame for their actions. They may withdraw from friends and family and spend a lot of time alone in their room.
Supporting Your Child
Knowing that a child is self-harming can be concerning for parents and caregivers. However, it is important to be compassionate and understanding. How you react can affect how the child or teenager responds to future treatment. Validate their feelings, let them know that you understand what they are going through, and reassure them that you will work together to find appropriate treatment for them.
If you are concerned about your child’s self-harm, there are several steps you can take to help them:
- Remove items your teenager may use to self-harm, such as razor blades, pencil sharpeners, or needles, from your home.
- Ensure that all medications are locked in a secure cabinet or hidden.
- Try to identify any triggers or patterns that may be present when your teenager self-harms. For example, they may isolate themselves in response to a difficult day at school.
There are also several alternative coping mechanisms that you can suggest to your young adult. These can include:
- Stroking a pet
- Biting down on a lemon
- Holding ice in their hands
- Running cold water over their wrists
- Going for a walk with a friend or family member
However, self-harm is a serious issue, and professional help is advisable. If you are concerned that your teenager is at risk of a suicide attempt, do not hesitate to contact your nearest hospital for medical assistance.
Self-harm is a serious issue that many young adults may face in their life. It is an unhealthy coping mechanism that is indicative of previous trauma or an underlying mental health condition and should not be dismissed as a phase or something that only young women do. It is a problem that countless teens face and must be treated seriously.
Here at The Wave, we provide specialist care for teenagers and young adults struggling with self-harm. Our programmes include an option of twenty-four-hour nursing care and one-to-one observation when necessary. Our dedicated team of psychiatrists and mental health nurses are available to provide compassionate, around-the-clock care to all young adults who need it. Contact us today to see how we can help.
 Moran P, Coffey C, Romaniuk H, et al. The natural history of self-harm from adolescence to young adulthood: a population-based cohort study. Lancet. 2012;379(9812):236-243. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61141-0
 Fisher HL, Moffitt TE, Houts RM, Belsky DW, Arseneault L, Caspi A. Bullying victimization and risk of self harm in early adolescence: longitudinal cohort study. BMJ. 2012;344(apr26 2):e2683-e2683. doi:10.1136/bmj.e2683
Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.