Signs & Symptoms of Self-Harming Behaviors in Adolescents

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, self-harm is the purposeful harming or causing of pain to one’s own body, and it is often linked to various mental disorders. The behaviors are considered self-harm due to their intention, and still describe a mental health condition whether or not the individual completes the intentioned act of harm. The most common types of self-harm are:

  • Pulling out your hair
  • Punching yourself or hitting your head against a wall or sharp object
  • Cutting, burning, or pinching your skin
  • Picking at wounds or scabs to aggravate their healing process

It is important to note that although self-harm is not a form of mental illness, it may be a sign of a mental health disorder. Another common misconception about self-harm is that it is an intentioned suicidal behavior. Some forms of self-harm can be fatal, but more often than not, an individual who engages in self-harm does not intend to die. At the same time, people who self-harm are more at risk for suicidal thoughts.

Although self-harm can be a symptom of a mental health disorder, adolescents may engage in self-harm for a variety of reasons. Often, those who participate in self-harm want to make intangible feelings tangible. Establishing a physicality and a tangibility to one’s pain can allow the individual to feel like they can better control their environment and predict their response to it. Similar to eating disorders, self-harm is a form of control. Naturally lacking in autonomy, adolescents often feel as though their life is out of their hands. The temptation of self-harm, then, is that it lets them decide what to do with their own body. Self-harm is often an adolescent’s attempt to control their decisions and decide their future.

Regardless of the reasons for self-harm, it is important to be aware of some common signs and symptoms if you suspect that your child is engaging in these dangerous behaviors.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

The signs and symptoms of self-harm will vary depending upon the individual’s age, personality, history of stress or trauma, and any preexisting mental health conditions. Although not extensive, the following is a list of some common signs and symptoms of self-harm:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants even in warm weather (this is often an attempt to hide cuts, scars, bruises, and scabs)
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Dodging questions or conversations when asked about their scars
  • Overtly lying about the origin of their scars (such as, “I fell,” or, “My cat scratched me,” etc.)
  • Sneaking around or acting secretive
  • Social anxiety
  • Significant increase or decrease in appetite
  • Aggressiveness or outbursts of anger
  • Tears
  • Reckless or impulsive behaviors
  • Isolation from friends and family (often going into their room or bathroom to “be alone”)

Physical symptoms:

  • Unexplained bruises, burns, scars, or cuts on any part of the body
  • Multiple cases of broken bones or other physical injuries
  • Hair loss
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
    • Note: Although the wrists and forearms are the most common places for self-harm, many adolescents will self-harm on their ankles, calves, or inner thighs, where the scars are less visible to others.

Mental symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Intense mood swings
  • Low self-esteem or outright self-hatred
  • Obsession with or complete disregard of physical appearance
  • Pervasive sense of guilt or shame
  • Strong desire to punish oneself
  • Inability to focus
  • Feeling out of control
  • Disassociation (disconnection from thoughts, feelings, memory, and physical experiences)


Effects of self-harm

Short-Term Effects: If unaddressed, self-harm can become a major problem for adolescents. Any adolescent who experiences any of the following short-term effects of self-harm should seek immediate professional treatment. Please be aware that just because the effects are deemed “short-term” does not mean that they are inconsequential or temporary. The short-term effects of untreated self-harm can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Frequent visits to doctors or hospitals
  • Physical injuries
  • Harm to internal organs
  • Infections
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Avoidance of school, work, or extracurricular activities
  • Neglect of hobbies
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Substance abuse
  • Thoughts of suicide

Long-Term Effects: If further left untreated, those who struggle with self-harm may suffer from more long-term, or chronic, effects. Any sign of long-term effects should prompt immediate medical attention. Long-term effects of self-harm may include the following:

  • Permanent scars or skin damage
  • Organ failure
  • Significant medical/hospital bills
  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Permanent loss of relationships
  • Persistent feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and/or hopelessness
  • Suicidal behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Self-harm is not a mental disorder, although sometimes it can be a symptom of one. The following are disorders that can prompt self-harm:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use disorders (addiction)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia

When looking for treatment for self-harm, it is important that you find a clinician who can determine whether the self-harm behaviors are symptoms of a mental disorder. In any case, self-harm is treatable. At Southstone Behavioral Health in South Boston, Virginia, adolescents who engage in self-harm behaviors are provided with quality treatment and the utmost care. During treatment, adolescents can learn how to resist the urge to harm themselves.