Here are the important self-harm warning signs parents need must know. Are you concerned that your teen might be cutting? Have you discovered concerning marks on your child or a child you know? Do you worry that a change in behavior could mean your teen is engaging in self-harm.
We answer these questions and provide you with warning signs to watch for. If you are looking for a summary of warning signs for parents, you are in the right place.
- 1. Physical Signs of Self-Harm
- 2. Change in Sleep
- 3. Change in Hygiene
- 4. Change in Eating
- 5. Secrecy: Hiding Self or Objects
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm refers to the intentional cause of injury to oneself. An estimated 5% of the population engages in self-harm behaviors. Self-harm is not only cutting the skin. Several behaviors considered self harm include: burning, hair pulling, punching self, intentional bruising, food restriction and any other intentional harm done to ones own body.
Self-Harm Warning Signs for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers
Here are five warning signs for parents to watch out for. These include physical injuries, behavior changes, and secrecy. A change in behavior is the most obvious sign that something has occurred. Behavior change can include a change in sleep, hygiene, eating or mood. Behavior is a form of communication, so listen to what you see in behavior change.
1. Physical Signs of Self-Harm
The most obvious warning sign of self-harm is seeing injuries on a child that do not have a logical explanation.
Cutting is the most common known self-harm behavior and makes up 70-90% of self injury incidents. However, cutting is not the only form of self harm to indicate there is a problem.
Intentionally causing harm to ones’ own body is serious and can be a sign of significant emotional distress.
Self-harm can occur a single time or many times. It can be difficult to detect but there are warning signs.
Making Excuses for New Injuries
One of the most significant indications that self harm has occurred is when a teen is making excuses for a new injury.
Although an unexplained injury can not only be a sign of self harm, it can also be an indication of relationship violence.
Either way, new injuries are a red flag that something is occurring and parental intervention is needed.
A change in behavior is the most obvious sign that something has occurred. Behavior change can include a change in sleep, hygiene, eating or mood. Behavior is a form of communication, so listen to what you see in behavior change.
2. Change in Sleep
Is your child sleeping more than ever before? Are they using sleep as a way to avoid the world? Change in sleep can occur with depression or anxiety symptoms.
While teens stereotypically require a lot of sleep, it should be a warning sign if there is a significant shift in sleep patterns over a short period of time. Too little or too much sleep can be an indication of physical or emotional ailments.
3. Change in Hygiene
Throughout development it is common for parents to have to harp on their children about hygiene. However, once a child is in teenage years the pressure to have good hygiene is typically a peer-driven pressure.
Look for a change in what is normal hygiene behaviors for your child. If your child goes from arguing about showering to being obsessively clean, that is a warning sign for parents. On the other hand, if your child is always groomed and all of a sudden refuses a shower, that is a warning sign as well.
Change in hygiene is a behavior change that can indicate a lot of things. It could mean your child is experiencing depressive mood and feels unable to manage daily self care routines. It could also mean your child has a specific reason why they no longer want to be well groomed. Maybe they are getting unwanted attention and believe poor hygiene is a way to protect themselves.
Maybe they have had incidents of self harm and don’t want to make those injuries known to their parents.
4. Change in Eating
Food restriction is a form of self harm. Eating an abnormally large amount can also be an indication of emotional distress or trauma response.
Other disordered eating behaviors that can cause concern include hoarding food, hiding food, use of laxatives or vomit inducing.
Another concern could be your child refusing to eat in front of others or refusing to disclose what they are eating. It is especially concerning if this is an area where your child previously had no issues. For example, they used to come down to family meals without trouble but now refuse to eat with the family or wait until late at night to eat to avoid others observing them eat.
5. Secrecy: Hiding Self or Objects
Some level of secrecy is expected during the teenage years of development. Few teens want their parents in their rooms or on their devices.
However, there is a difference between respecting privacy and seeking secrecy. Respecting privacy is a communicated boundary and expectation. Secrecy is an effort to conceal or deceive.
Most families have stated rules about privacy such as knocking before entering a room. Privacy rules can be negotiated based on age appropriateness and mutual trust.
Honoring the privacy of your teen doesn’t mean you have to give them all the privacy they request. This is negotiated and needs to be agreed upon between adult and teen.
When a teen is actively trying to withhold information, it is an indication of secrecy, especially if this is something you openly discussed before, and now your teen refuses to talk about it.
Secrecy occurs for a reason. That reason may not be clear to the parent, but it is an indication that you need to increase monitoring until you get to the bottom of why.
Hiding in Their Room or the Bathroom
You should be wary if your child goes from inviting you in their room to chat to screaming at you for trying to enter their room. They could be engaging in self-harm activities behind closed doors.
Teens typically lack the sophistication to hide injury or objects without any indications. While your teen may be yelling that it is a respect issue, a rapid change is an indication of a secrecy issue.
Teens who cut have also been known to take out the own trash or hide their injury objects in their room. If your teenager never takes out their trash and all of a sudden they do it often, it is a warning sign.
Many objects can be used for self-harm behaviors. Razor blades are common and can be removed from common shaving equipment. Even items like pens can be used to produce cuts on the body.
It is reasonable for a teen to request privacy when changing. However, if your child begins to wear more layers of clothing than is normal or all of a sudden wears long sleeves and long pants, you should be alert.
Self harm is often hidden from caregivers by clothing or additional layers. Take note of a teen who wears baggy sweatshirts or long sleeves during the hot summer months.
A change in body covering can also be an indication of body image insecurities or a trauma response. A change in how your child dresses is an indication of change and is a concern, but does not necessarily mean they are engaging in self-harming.
Resources for Teen Cutting: Get Help
If you have confirmation that your child is cutting or self harming, do not ignore it. Act and take the self harm incident seriously. Don’t let your teen convince you that you are overreacting and that hurting oneself is normal. It is a serious indication of risk to self and it needs to be taken seriously.
The good news is you don’t have to figure out your next step alone. There are resources for teens and caregivers if self harm is occurs.
Suicide hotline numbers: There are many numbers that you can call or text for you and your teen. These hotlines can provide local resources and provide a person to listen and help assess the seriousness of the incident. These services are free and available 24/7.
Community MH crisis lines: Most communities have a local mental health center. These centers are typically funded by county and may be shared across multiple smaller towns. Your community mental health center typically has a variety of resources to address mental health needs. They typically provide a sliding scale for services to ensure payment is not a barrier for treatment.
Therapy services: Therapy is available online and in person. Keep in mind it can take awhile to find the right provider. Therapy is a long term resource. Crisis services are more appropriate for initial interventions. Therapy services are often associated with fees for insured and uninsured individuals.
Click here to read answers to the top 7 questions about teens and cutting.
Your gut is a resource. If something feels off, trust yourself. Keep digging until you figure out the source of the change in behavior. Don’t write off your uneasy feeling to it being a teen thing. You know your child best and you know when something feels wrong.
Finally, let go of guilt. If you suspect or discover that your teen is cutting, you may be tempted to blame yourself or question if it’s because of your parenting. Putting yourself down doesn’t serve you or your teen. Instead, focus on getting them the treatment they need, and know that you are not alone.
Click here for a free PDF printable checklist of the 7 steps to take when your child needs residential treatment.
Adelaide Dupont says
Good points about the differences between respecting privacy [which is a thing parents and teenagers negotiate] and seeking secrecy [which is on the teenager’s terms – but that the teenager might not be in control of].