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5 Hard-to-Recognize Adolescent Self Harm Behaviors You Might Have Missed

Adolescent Self Harm

It is a fair statement to say that being an adolescent is harder now that it has been in recent years. Teens are stressed and anxious about an uncertain global future. Their worlds reduced down to what they see on toxic, media-driven social media platforms. Rushed through their formative years by well-meaning parents and peers pushing them to do more and be better with the hope of a successful academic future. They are constantly bombarded with attention-span destroying videos telling them how they should look and act. All this before they’ve learned healthy coping mechanisms for their emotions and the world around them. In this blog we’ll explore several un-healthy coping mechanisms your child may be engaging in that you might have missed. 

1. Hair Pulling (Trichotillomania) & Skin Picking (Dermatillomania)


Hair pulling and skin picking are forms of body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB’s). BFRB’s are a way of, “dealing with negative or uncomfortable feelings, such as stress, anxiety, tension, boredom, loneliness, extreme tiredness or frustration.” Dogs excessively lick to self-soothe. Humans bite their fingernails when they’re nervous. Trichotillomania and dermatillomania are the same kind of behaviors taken to an extreme. The brain releases a dopamine hit when these behaviors are engaged in and make them difficult to quit. From a neurochemical perspective, this behavior is being rewarded. Over time hair pulling and skin picking can result in bald patches and skin and hair damage.   

2. Excessive Exercise


Compulsive exercising is defined as “physical exercise that significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or inappropriate settings, or when the individual continues to exercise despite injury or other medical complications.” While regular exercise is essential for health and well-being, exercise addiction can be used as an unhealthy way of managing emotions, coping with feelings of self-worth, and as a form of eating-disorder. When someone is engaging in compulsive exercising, they may feel intense anxiety, depression, and distress if they are unable to exercise. Adolescents may turn to intense workouts as a way to numb emotional pain or gain a sense of control over their bodies. Pay attention to extreme exercise routines, especially if they are accompanied by signs of exhaustion, obsession with body image, or refusal to take rest days.

3. Social Withdrawal


When we think of self-harm we most commonly conjure up images of external harm. Social isolation, a common sign of distress, is a form of internal self-harm. If you notice your teenager suddenly becoming withdrawn, canceling plans, and avoiding social interactions, it may be a sign of a deeper, internal struggle. Social isolation can deepen feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Pay attention to the changes in your child's communication patterns and emotional expression.

4. Obsessive Perfectionism


Striving for excellence is a commendable trait and something that should be encouraged. But in the same way that striving for something and attaining it are two different things, so too, is there a difference between excellence and perfectionism.  A 2021 study revealed a correlation between perfectionism and nonsuicidal self-injury. Adolescents who set unrealistically high standards for themselves may engage in self-flagellation when they fall short. Watch for signs of extreme self-criticism, fear of failure, or persistent dissatisfaction with personal achievements.

5. Hidden Forms of Self-Harm


While cutting and burning are the more obvious methods of teenage self-harm, some may resort to approaches that leave less visible signs. Biting, scratching, and hitting themselves are ways of expressing emotional pain that they may have trouble communicating verbally. Pay attention to unexplained injuries or bruises and approach the situation with empathy and love. 

How to Support


Warp your concerns in a desire to understand and help; never to judge or punish. While these behaviors can be overwhelming and frightening to deal with, they’re usually the end result of your child doing the best that they can with what they have. A little bit of grace, compassion, and care will go a long way. If you feel out of your comfort zone in addressing or dealing with these behaviors, consult with a behavioral health specialist. 

If you feel like treatment may be necessary, consider calling Stonewater Adolescent Recovery Center for support. Our adolescent dual-diagnosis treatment program was designed for situations like these. Our clinical team is on standby to answer questions, listen to your concerns and help. Call today.