There is a difference between self-harm and suicidal ideation, however teens who are suicidal are more likely to self-harm.  About one in six teenagers have self-harmed at least once. By adulthood, only about one in twenty have continued to self-harm, usually on a less frequent basis. Preventing self-harm in teens identifies the problem earlier and gives them skills necessary to develop a more positive self-image and healthier coping strategies. The majority of individuals stop within five years, however when it becomes habitual, it is hard to stop or control. Self harm is rising in prevalence due to peer contagion and spreading awareness through social media.

Despite growing concern, most teens go to lengths to keep their self-harm private, either choosing hidden places of their body or covering up scars with long clothes and accessories.

“Physical pain is sometimes easier to deal with than emotional pain,” Lomo Linda University Social Worker Glenn Scott says. “When people choose to self-harm, it comes with a lot of shame — which makes individuals reluctant to seek help. You’re not going to see the physical evidence as easily, but you will see the emotional evidence”

Preventing self-harm in teens is most effective when you look at the emotional evidence rather than waiting for physical evidence to become visible.

Risk Factors for Self Harm:

Overwhelming emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, or emotional numbness. It is often used as means of coping with anxiety or other negative feelings and to relieve stress or pressure.

Low self-esteem. Self-harm is often referred to as self-aggression. It is a form of self-destructive behavior that stems from negative self-image and hopelessness.

Wanting to feel in control of their bodies and minds, to express feelings,  to communicate needs, to distract themselves from other problems, or to externalize their emotional pain.

Dissociation. Many people who are feeling the urge to self-harm become detached from their physical experience, which enables them to feel less pain. In some cases, a dissociative state can trigger the urge to self-harm in order to connect with their physical experience.

Sensation-seeking. People who self-harm are often motivated by impulsivity. Self-harm is a highly sensational experience that can either elicit feelings of pleasure or pain through a rush of endorphins.

History of trauma. Either a manifestation of abuse by others or triggered by flashbacks and unstable sense of self.

Mental illness. Associated with  eating disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Isolation. Most teenagers self-harm in private, although boys are more likely to self-harm by enabling others to inflict pain on them while using substances. Loneliness contributes to cravings to self-harm. Teens may withdraw from their friend group if they are worried about their friends finding out or if they feel like they can’t reach out for support.

Preventing Self Harm:

Listen. This is probably the most important thing you can do. It is hard to trust someone enough to open up about this personal issue. If your teen reaches out for support, listen to what they have to say before offering advice. Be non-judgmental and validate their experience when you do. Tell them you love them.

Focus more on the distress than the physical behavior. Emphasize the importance of being able to communicate your needs and learning how to manage difficult emotions when they arise. Leaning into the behavior limits their focus to the craving. Extensive research on the problem may give them more ideas rather than solutions. Punishing them for continued self-harm may also escalate the behavior.

Monitor or Limit use of Digital Media. Social media companies are starting to monitor graphic images that promote self-harm online by blocking tags, reporting posts, and even showing sponsored ads for mental health treatment and helplines based on browsing history. While they want people to be able to reach out for support through their platforms, they recognize how it can be a toxic influence.  

Create a safety plan. Collaborate with your teen and ask what you can do to help them. Learn about their triggers and alternative coping skills and distractions that work. Role model self-care and offer resources for self-soothing. Make first-aid supplies accessible for them to use with or without your help. Decide when emergency services are necessary.

Encourage finding healthy outlets for intense emotions. At BlueFire Wilderness, we provide activities such as hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, yoga, mountain biking, equine therapy, canoeing, skiing, and paddle boarding to help students find alternative physical activities that strengthen their mind-body connection. Physical activity activates similar levels of endorphins and affects overall well-being. We recommend creative expression and journaling as ways to navigate and make sense of personal experiences.

Remember you are not alone. Many teens and their families are struggling with this issue and communities are beginning to create safe spaces to talk about it.

BlueFire Wilderness can Help

BlueFire Wilderness is a wilderness therapy program for teens ages 11-17 that builds self-esteem and survival skills. Many of our students struggle with self-harm and associated mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. We work with students to address reasons that motivate their self-harm and encourage finding alternate ways of sensation-seeking through our adventure therapy program. Our adventure approach incorporates teamwork and problem solving skills into rediscovering your inner spark.

Previous reading
Why Choose Adventure Therapy on the West Coast?
Next reading
Struggling To Fit In: Helping Socially Withdrawn Teenagers