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What Do We Know About the Relationship Between Self-Harm and Trauma in Teens? 

What Do We Know About the Relationship Between Self-Harm and Trauma in Teens?

Unfortunately, self-harm and trauma often go hand-in-hand in adolescents. When teens endure trauma, they may struggle to understand or cope with their emotions. They might self-harm to suppress painful memories, release emotional pain, or punish themselves. 

Any history of trauma is a significant risk factor for self-harm in teens. One study found that 71.3% of adolescents who struggled with self-harm also reported childhood abuse. The most common forms of self-harm in teens include cutting, burning, head banging, and wound picking. 

Trauma is also a risk factor for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse in adolescents. These issues can reinforce one another, worsening self-harm behaviors and mental health problems over time if left untreated. 

Self-harm serves as an unhealthy coping mechanism for teens to manage traumatic symptoms. Although it provides temporary relief, it ultimately causes more harm than good by increasing shame, fear, and emotional distress. It also delays trauma recovery. 

How Trauma Impacts a Teen's Mental Health 

How Trauma Impacts a Teen's Mental Health

Trauma compromises a teen’s sense of safety and ability to trust. Many trauma survivors experience intense sadness, fear, hopelessness, panic attacks, withdrawal from friends, sleep issues, lack of motivation, and suicidal thoughts. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects approximately 7–8% of the adolescent population. 

Trauma disrupts healthy development in teens. It can negatively impact their self-esteem, relationships, and academic performance. Trauma treatment typically involves processing past events and learning coping strategies to improve functioning. 

Many trauma survivors experience intense feelings related to sadness, fear, hopelessness, and shame. They may also experience other related symptoms, including:  

  • Flashbacks 

  • Nightmares 

  • Panic attacks 

  • Appetite issues 

  • Interpersonal problems 

  • Withdrawal from friends and/or family 

  • Hypervigilance 

  • Unexplained aches and pains 

  • Racing thoughts 

  • Anhedonia (lack of pleasure in usual activities) 

  • Suicidal thoughts  

Sometimes these symptoms occur just after the event and decrease on their own. However, in cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these symptoms may persist for several months or years. Research indicates that approximately 7–8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD during their lifetime.  

While each person responds to trauma differently, it can undoubtedly impact every area of someone’s functioning. Trauma can disrupt their self-esteem, affect the quality of their relationships, and impact work and school performance. 

What Parents Can Do 

What Parents Can Do

If you notice warning signs of self-harm or trauma in your teen, don’t ignore them. Speak to your child compassionately and seek professional help right away. With caring support from loved ones and evidence-based treatment, teens can recover. 

Challenge Negative Thought Patterns 

Challenge Negative Thought Patterns

Teens who self-harm often struggle with intense self-criticism, hopelessness, and inaccurate beliefs about themselves and their future. Help your teen identify and reframe unhealthy thought patterns. Ask them questions to reveal flaws in their thinking. Express love and acceptance, highlight strengths and positive qualities that contradict these negative self-perceptions, and redirect their focus towards evidence that things can and will get better. 

Take Care of Overall Health 

Take Care of Overall Health

It’s essential not to overlook the foundation of wellbeing. Ensure your teen gets sufficient sleep and nutrition, regular physical activity, time outdoors and away from excessive screen time, and opportunities for social connection. Maintaining healthy rhythms can help stabilize their mood, boost self-esteem, and reduce impulsive behaviors. Promote positive lifestyle choices by modeling self-care in your own life as well. 

Healing from self-harm requires patience, compassion, and a non-judgmental presence. Avoid ultimatums, frustrated reactions, and communicating disappointment or disgust at your teen’s struggles. Punishment usually backfires by heightening distress. Rather, remain calm and convey unconditional support. 

The fact that your teen has shared their pain with you is a courageous step towards health and recovery. Let them know you are fully committed to helping them through this challenge. With consistent emotional support, motivation, and access to healthy coping alternatives, your adolescent can overcome self-harm and gain resilience that serves them throughout life. The strategies above are powerful tools not just for crisis intervention, but for laying the groundwork for lifelong mental health and wellness. 

Let Idaho Youth Ranch help your teen

Idaho Youth Ranch Teen Counseling

Teen Counseling

Our masters-educated and trained therapists and counselors have the experience your young person needs to find healing.  

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Family Counseling

Idaho Youth Ranch can help your family reconnect, open up lines of communication, and build more positive relationships.

Idaho Youth Ranch Group Counseling

Group Counseling

Group therapy helps young people, ages 9 to 24, to address trauma, dangerous behaviors, troubling feelings or experiences.

Idaho Youth Ranch Equine Therapy

Equine Therapy

Working with horses has been a proven method of emotional recovery and one of the unique services offered by Idaho Youth Ranch.