One of your top priorities as a parent is to keep your child safe. When they’re small this is a rather straightforward task: keep them within arm’s reach, away from hot things and high places, and you’re pretty good. As they get older, it gets harder to keep them within arm’s reach. Our children spend a growing portion of their day outside our home and without us, and we become acutely aware of our decreased ability to keep them safe. This is developmentally appropriate, and one of the main functions of parenting: prepare our kids to keep themselves safe, functioning, and happy without us. As painful as it can be for us to let them go a bit, it’s what’s necessary. But what happens when things start to seem off? You notice a change in your tween or teen and aren’t sure what’s going on, but something seems to be different. Sometimes the signs that your child is struggling are more obvious than others. Here are some things that often are associated with self-harm:

 

*Please note: just because your child is doing any or all of these things doesn’t mean they’re engaging in self-harm, and there are many individuals who engage in self-harm but don’t display any of these warning signs. Everyone is unique and if you have cause for concern, the best route is to seek help from a professional who can assess your child.*

 

Secrecy and withdrawal

Your child who used to be an open book is suddenly tight lipped about everything. They lock their cell phone screen as soon as they see you looking at them. Their laptop screen gets shut the moment you walk in the room. They are vague about where they’re going and who they are seeing. Secrecy as it relates to their body is particularly common with self-harm. Instead of spending a few minutes talking to you in the kitchen when they get home, they run straight to their room and lock the door. The tricky part about this behavior is that even the healthiest teen has a tendency to withdraw from their family during this time period. It’s normal, expected teenage behavior. The key to figuring out if it’s a red flag is whether or not this behavior is a new, sudden change. In that case, it might be worth noting.

 

Odd clothing or jewelry choices

It’s warm out, but your child is wearing long sleeves and insisting that they aren’t hot. They’re refusing to change into shorts for gym class. They previously never wore jewelry and now they wear a large stack of bracelets from the time they wake up until they go to sleep. They used to come downstairs in their pajamas in the morning, but now won’t leave their room until they’re fully dressed and covered up. While some teens may do these things due to poor body image and an attempt to cover parts of their bodies that they do not like, it can also be an effort to cover signs of self-harm.

 

Household items that seem out of place

Many parents thinking retrospectively after finding out that their child is injuring report that they noticed, but overlooked, some odd things at home. Tools that their child was using to injure were found in their bedroom or the bathroom, when they were items that belonged in the kitchen or garage. One incident isn’t cause for alarm, but a repeated pattern of this, particularly after you return the item to where it belongs, may raise a red flag.

 

In all cases, I encourage you not to ignore your gut sense as a parent. If something seems wrong with your child, take that feeling seriously. Don’t panic, as many potentially troubling teenage behaviors are normal and developmentally appropriate, but make note of it and seek a second opinion from the appropriate expert. If you’d like to learn more about how we treat self-harm in our private practice, check out our website.

 

Carolyn Wagner, MA LPC

 

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Carolyn Wagner, MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in maternal mental health, trauma/PTSD, and self-injury in teens. She sees adults and adolescents with a wide variety of needs including anxiety, depression, and body image concerns.

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