Self Harm

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You may have heard stories about teenagers self-harming or maybe you have noticed something in your teen that has you worried. Below is some information to help you navigate through the loops of self harm. 

So, what is Self-Harm?

Self-harm, which can also be known as deliberate self-harm (DSH) or deliberate self-injury (DSI), is the intentional self-poisoning or self-injury with or without suicidal intention. Generally, people that are self-harming do not want to die but are rather expressing emotional pain. Self-harm acts can include:

  • Initiated behaviour such as self cutting, jumping from a height or in front of a moving vehicle, scratching, biting, burning, hair pulling, punching or slaping self and deliberately hitting body on a hard surface with the intention to cause self-harm;
  • Ingesting a substance in excess of prescribed or generally recognised dose;
  • ingesting a recreational or illicit drug with the intention to cause self-harm; or
  • ingesting a non-ingestible substance or object.

What are the most common forms?

Cutting, overdose, illicit drug use, self-battery, hanging and sniffing/inhalation.

How many teenagers typically self-harm?

Research has suggested that around 12% of teenagers have self-harmed over a 12-month period. Self harm typically begins in early adolescence, from the ages of 12 onwards, and appears to be more common in females than males.

Self-harm is something that teenagers may try only once, or it can become a habit.

What are the risk factors and why do people engage in self-harm?

Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress, and tends to be used as a way of coping, punishing themselves or reducing tensions. Teenagers can be vulnerable if they have had a previous history of:

  • Mental health problems;
  • Behavioural disorders;
  • Substance misuse;
  • Family breakdown; or
  • A suicide in the family.

Below you can find some information about the types of self harm and their common motivating factors and the typical behaviours you might see.

Physical Self Injury

Common Motivating Factors can include:

  • Feeling frustrated, angry or having low self-esteem;
  • Feeling distressed by the means of communication; or
  • May be used as a way to cope with negative feelings.

Typical behaviours may include cutting, scratching or burning skin. Arms and/or legs will be the most frequent area that this can occur. 

Impulsive Self-Harm

Common Motivating Factors:

  • Impulsive actions are often linked to the use of alcohol beforehand.
  • The individual may feel an overwhelming sense of ambivalence - simultaneous beliefs about two actions, which are opposing. They may want to die, but at the same time want to live, as long as the emotional pain disappears. 
  • An often-short-lived idea that death is the only solutions.
  • Often occurs after some form of crisis, such as an argument with a parent, friend or partner.

Typical behaviours: The most common form of this type of self-harm is an overdose of medications. In this form people are likely to seek help after harming and will feel regret and embarrassment afterwards. 

What are some of the potential triggers?

Some of the common reasons for an individual to self-harm can include:

  • An argument with a close friend;
  • Bullying;
  • Difficulties in relationships with parents or peers;
  • Bereavement;
  • Previous abusive experiences;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Sexual Problems;
  • Physical ill health; or
  • Social or geographical isolation.

What do I do if I think my teenager is self-harming?

Talk to them – though before you talk to them, deal with and acknowledge your own feelings. Make sure that you have the conversation in a private place, directly express your concerns however try and avoid expressing strong feelings such as anger, fear or revulsion.

Don’t demand that they talk to you if they are not ready. If they are not ready let them know that you want to listen to them when they are ready and ask if there is anything you can do to make them feel safe so they can talk to you.

Require more information?

Headspace offer various fact sheets around the topics of self-harm.
Reach Out is a valuable resource that offers a large amount or articles around self-harm.
Youth Beyond Blue  is another valuable resource dedicated to youth dealing with mental illness. They also offer a support service which can be contacted at 1300 22 4636.

Read a teenager's story about self-harm

Read a parents story about there experiences with their teenager self-harm



Burton, M. (2014). Self-harm: working with vulnerable adolescents. Practice Nursing, 25(5), 245-251.

De Leo, D., & Heller, T. S. (2004). Who are the kids who self-harm? an Australian self-report school survey / Diego De Leo and Travia S. Heller. Sydney Australasian Medical Pub. Co., 2004.

Hawton, K., Bergen, H., Waters, K., Ness, J., Cooper, J., Steeg, S., & Kapur, N. (2012). Epidemiology and nature of self-harm in children and adolescents: findings from the multicentre study of self-harm in England. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 21(7), 369-377. doi:10.1007/s00787-012-0269-6

Hawton, K., & James, A. (2005). Suicide and deliberate self harm in young people. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 330(7496), 891-894.

Hawton, K., Saunders, K. E. A., & O'Connor, R. C. (2012). Self-harm and suicide in adolescents. The Lancet, 379(9834), 2373-2382. doi:

Hungerford, C., Hodgson, D., Clancy, R., Monisse-Redman, M., Bostwick, R., Tony. Mental Health Care: An Introduction for Health Professional 2E. [VitalSource Bookshelf Online]. Retrieved from

Mental health first aid. (2014). Non-suicidal self-injury first aid guidelines.   Retrieved from 2014 Revised_1.pdf