Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of Self-Harm

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from self-harm, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-harming behaviors are defined as behaviors that are a deliberate infliction of harm to one’s body. These behaviors can include burning, cutting, hitting oneself, banging one’s head against a hard object, or drinking harmful substances. While this behavior may seem like an attempt at suicide, in most cases it is not. More likely than not, children and adolescents self-harm as a way to get quick relief from emotional distress. Today many children and adolescents are struggling to cope with the stress of school, problems within their families, and peer relationships. Some children may be overscheduled or constantly pressured by their parents.

Many children and adolescents who hurt themselves are trying to cope with this extreme amount of stress and anxiety or self-sooth inner pain that they are unable to control. Additionally, self-harm has been known to help a person who feels dead inside or emotionally disconnected from the world around them find a means of remaining grounded in reality because it allows them to feel physical pain.

Initially after individuals inflict harm on themselves, they may feel a sense of calm, a release of tension, and even a sense of euphoria. However, those feelings are only temporary. Shortly after these feelings dissipate, they are replaced with guilt, shame, and the return of painful emotions. While self-harm may not be done in an attempt to die by suicide it can lead to the possibility of more serious and even fatal repercussions.


Self-harm statistics

It has been estimated that schizophrenia affects 1% of the American population. Up until recently, schizophrenia was not diagnosed in children and adolescents. However, there has been growing awareness of the fact that schizophrenia can present its onset in childhood, with children younger than 5 years old having been documented as experiencing symptoms. Fortunately, being diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child is rare, with only 1 in 40,000 children experiencing the onset of symptoms before the age of 13.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm in children and teens

There is not any one single cause that leads children or adolescents to begin to harm themselves, but in general it is the result of an inability to cope with psychological pain or other life stressors in a healthy way. Children who self-harm may have a difficult time talking about, expressing, and regulating their feelings. Other reasons why a child or adolescent may self-harm include:

  • To feel a sense of control over one’s body, feelings, or life situations
  • They feel emotionally disconnected from or invalidated by their parents
  • They want to fit in with a particular peer group that encourages this type of behavior
  • They want to feel anything at all, even if it is physical pain
  • Seeking relief from emotional distress
  • As a form of self-punishment

Additionally there may be certain risk factors that can increase the risk of self-injury, which may include:

  • Being female
  • Having friends who self-harm
  • Presence of certain mental health disorders
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm in children and teens

The signs and symptoms of self-harm will vary among children and adolescents depending upon their own personal method of self-injury. While any area of the body may be used for self-harm, it is more common for the arms, legs, and front torso to be the targets of self-mutilation because these areas are easily hidden by clothing. Examples of possible symptoms of self-harm might include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Keeping instruments used for self-injury on hand
  • Difficulties with relationships
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even when it is hot outside
  • Spending excessive amounts of time alone
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents

Physical symptoms:

  • Scars
  • Frequent bruises, cuts, or scratches
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Having difficulty controlling one’s impulses
  • Persistent questions about one’s personal identity
  • Chronic, uncontrollable thoughts of wanting to self-injure
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Dissociating

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Emotional instability
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Loneliness
  • Increased feelings of anxiety when unable to self-harm


Effects of self-harm in children and teens

If not properly address the long-term effects of self-harm can be devastating for an adolescent, with some of the effects lasting into adulthood. Some of these effects can include:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Delusional thoughts
  • Consistent, obsessive, and intrusive thoughts about the behavior itself
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust
  • Social isolation
  • Family conflict
  • Development of borderline personality disorder as an adult
  • Long-term physical effects including: infected wounds, permanent scarring, permanent tissue damage, and multi-organ failure
  • Accidental death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Self-harm is often associated with a number of mental health disorders. The most common co-occurring mental disorders that a person who self-injures may be struggling with can include:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse and addiction