Self-Harming in Teen Girls: What It Is, Why They Do It and What You Can Do About It.


As Self-Injury Awareness Day fell at the beginning of this month, we wanted to write a piece that addresses what self-harming is, why your daughter may be engaged in it, how to spot it and what to do about it.

As the parent of a teen girl, it’s likely you’ve heard of self-harming or, possibly, experienced it with your own daughter. Unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence among teenagers with over 18% of U.S. teens admitting to purposely injuring themselves according to a study released in 2018. The study also revealed that the behavior is much more common in girls, reaching as high as 30% in some states.

What is Self-Harm?

Put simply, self-harm (or self-injury) is when someone purposely harms themselves. The behavior we’re addressing in this article is non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), where the intention behind the act is not death, but to cause injury.

The most common form of self-injury is known as “cutting,” where a teen will cut their skin with a razor, a piece of glass or even their fingernails. Other forms may include branding or burning their skin, head-banging, strangulation, hair pulling or medication misuse.

Ultimately, any behavior that deliberately causes bodily harm to oneself may be considered self-harm.

Why would my Daughter Self-Harm?

Self-harming is a complex behavioral problem associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety and past trauma.

Other potential reasons for self-harm may include:

  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Feelings of rejection at home or with peers
  • Feeling unsafe at home or at school
  • Loneliness


Although it seems counterintuitive, teen girls that self-injure are trying to regulate their emotions. For them, the act of self-harming can be a way to release tension, distract themselves from difficult issues they are facing or relieve anger and sadness.

Many parents and peers incorrectly view self-harm as attention-seeking behavior. The reality is most teens that self-injure hide the behavior from their friends and family. They generally understand any relief is only temporary and the behavior is physically and mentally dangerous.

How do I Know if my Daughter is Self-Harming?

While teens that self-harm are adept at concealing their behavior, there are a few things you can look out for:

  • Has your daughter grown increasingly more isolated and secretive?
  • Does she have any suspicious looking scars?
  • Are there any wounds that don’t seem to get better or get worse over time?
  • Has your daughter been collecting sharp items?
  • Have you noticed her wearing a lot of bandages?
  • Does your daughter wear long sleeves and pants even in hot weather?
  • Does she avoid sports or other activities where she’s required to change her clothes in front of others?
  • Has she started avoiding social activities altogether?
  • Has your daughter been talking about self-harm; maybe mentioning peers that engage in self-harm?


If any of the above behavior sounds like your daughter, you may need to start a conversation about what’s happening in her life.

How do I Talk to my Daughter About Self-Harm?

If you suspect your daughter may be engaged in self-harm, it’s important to address the situation as soon as possible. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to break the habit.

The first thing to remember is to approach the subject from a place of concern and love. Leave any judgement or scolding out of the conversation. Remember, her behavior is a coping mechanism she has acquired to manage distressing emotions. The behavior itself may scare her as much as it scares you; and she likely feels shame, guilt and possibly remorse after doing it.

It’s important that your daughter knows you are there to help. Ask questions about how she is feeling and what she thinks is driving the behavior. Let her know that there is a way out of self-harming behavior and that you’re going to find help together.

How is Self-Harm Treated?

Once it’s been addressed, you should connect with her primary care provider, therapist or seek a program that can treat the behavior.

Whether it’s talk therapy alone or in an immersive program like Greenbrier Academy, the way through self-harming behavior is to address the underlying cause and provide healthy coping mechanisms as alternatives.

Our approach at Greenbrier begins with helping the student identify the emotions she is trying to cope with through her self-harming behavior. Once identified, we help her investigate the underlying issue that created the emotion in the first place. By identifying that underlying core issue, she can begin to replace her unhealthy belief about herself with new, healthy beliefs. These healthy beliefs and the new coping mechanisms that go along with them are then practiced within our community until they become second nature.

Again, her self-harming behavior is her way of coping with difficult emotions. By addressing those emotions and their underlying cause while learning new, healthy coping mechanisms, your daughter will be able to step away from her self-harming behavior as it no longer serves its purpose.


If your daughter is in a potentially life-threatening situation, call 911 for immediate medical help. If you would like to learn more about how Greenbrier can help your daughter with self-harming, please contact us.

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