3 Myths About Self-Harm, Debunked

Posted on February 24th, 2015

Teens often complain that their parents don’t understand them. Teens don’t make this easy for their parents, though, as they are frequently pushing away and asking for more independence. During adolescence, some struggles that teens go through are suitable to face without parental assistance, since this prepares them for adulthood. However, there are some heavy struggles that no one should face without support. One difficult topic that many teens feel shy to discuss with their parents (or vice versa) is the subject of self-injury. Common types of self-injury are when teens cut or burn themselves or intentionally take risks that put themselves in harm’s way. For a parent, it can be frightening to hear about teen self-harm behaviors in the news or media, to notice that some of your teen’s peers have been purposefully harming themselves, or to even have the experience of one day seeing the signs in your own teen. How can a parent positively influence their teen around this sensitive issue?

Knowledge is Power. The first step is to have an accurate understanding. There are so many misconceptions about self-injury that we hear from others and the media. If you would like to talk to your teen about a heavy topic, make sure to read up on it first. Here are some common myths that you may have heard about self-harm:

MYTH #1: Teens who deliberately harm themselves are suicidal.

  • Truth: Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are not mutually exclusive. Not all people who struggle with suicidal thoughts will hurt themselves, just as not all people who harm themselves are thinking about ending their lives. Actually, many teens who express themselves by self-harm are looking to relieve the pressure that is building up internally, and some teens see this as a way to prevent their emotions from building up to the point of suicide. However, self-injury is only a temporary way to relieve emotions and can often cause added emotional distress, which is why teens that hurt themselves without getting the help and support they need have a much higher risk of suicide in the long run.
  • What to Remember: When discussing this issue with your teen, try to avoid generalizations or making assumptions and instead be genuinely curious about your teen’s thoughts and experience on this topic. Keep in mind that, while there may be some common themes, each individual’s perspective and experience is unique.

MYTH #2: Teens who intentionally injure themselves are just looking for attention.

  • Truth: The kernel of truth in this myth is that teens are especially sensitive to the reactions that they get from others. Teens who self-harm are often seeking from others a sense of belonging, acceptance and real help, not shock value. Many teens actually cut, burn or hurt themselves in places that they can cover up to avoid the negative attention they might get from others. More than a way to get attention, self-injury is actually a coping mechanism, albeit a negative way to cope. Self-harming behaviors are a sign that a teen is lacking positive coping tools to effectively deal with stress, depression, anxiety, self-criticism, grief or other painful emotions.
  • What to Remember: Telling a teen that they are just trying to get attention for their self-harm will only make them feel more lost and alone. Discussing how there are positive alternatives for coping with painful emotions is an important conversation to have with your teen, whether they are at risk of self-injury or not. A teen’s positive coping mechanisms can include listening to music, exercising, having fun with friends, playing with the family pet, and journaling.

MYTH #3: Self-injury is just a phase – All a teen has to do is just stop doing it.

  • Truth: About 50% of those who get involved in self-harm begin around age 14 and carry this behavior into their 20’s. Self-injury can be very difficult to stop independently of help from others, and there is an addictive quality to it. Once it becomes a part of a teen’s way to cope, it can be very difficult to replace with healthier coping skills.
  • What to Remember: Make sure that your teen is connected with a variety of people and resources that they feel comfortable turning to if they need help or advice. When your teen comes to you for help about little problems, think of it as a test of whether you are a safe place for your teen to turn to for big problems.

As self-injury is becoming a more common theme in media and among teens in our local community, parents are key players in getting teens to think for themselves about the messages that they are receiving about self-harm. The most effective ways to prevent self-injurious behavior in your own teen is to be inquisitive and open-minded when you discuss tough topics, to role model and encourage use of healthy coping skills, and to ensure that your teen has an array of supports in place, including yourself.


What has helped your teen open up and discuss tough topics with you?

What have you noticed about how the media portrays self-harm?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

3 thoughts on “3 Myths About Self-Harm, Debunked

  1. Lindsay Smith

    Thank you so much for this valuable information about the myths and truths around self-harm. I think that for parents self-harm can be especially confusing because it can appear as though it makes no sense. I appreciate the explanation about why some teens do this and even more importantly, the tips parents can use to begin to address this and to try and prevent this.

  2. MelissaMayes_Fusion

    Joy, I am so thankful for your powerful message in this article. As an educator, I have unfortunately seen self-injury used as a negative coping strategy in our teen population. It was a great reminder for me to simply create and hold a safe space for teens to come if and when they’re ready to talk about the problems they’re trying to cope with. Thank you also for de-bunking the myths so clearly!

    1. Joy

      Thanks, Melissa! Self-harm is such a scary thing for parents, and it can be understandably easy to react in a way that ends up not being helpful or effective. I’m thankful that there are wonderful people like you in our school systems who are trying to be that safe place for teens.

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