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  • Writer's pictureStacey Ulry

Teens & Self-Harm: What Signs to Look For?


Throughout my teaching career and now in my role of mental health counselor, I often encounter non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) with my students and clients. I’ve worked with cutters, burners, carvers, pickers, and a whole host of other forms of NSSI.


NSSI is a form of coping with what is going on around or within them, and self-harm makes them feel better when under extreme distress. It may feel like the ONLY thing they have control over, their one outlet to express emotions that need letting out.



But what is the relationship between NSSI & the act of suicide. The word “suicidal” to therapists is a clinical term with specific presentation and historical patterns that we are trained to understand.


When the average person uses the word “suicidal,” it encompasses a wide variety of emotions and experiences like being “sad”, “frustrated”, and many other emotions. In our society, “suicidal” triggers an immediate response, where I am “sad” does not.




This has led to a kind of overuse of the word, stripping it of its unfortunate and powerful original meaning.


On one hand, someone may be using the word to express social isolation or awkwardness and those around them don’t see it as a real issue. On the other side, if someone uses the word “suicidal” in its true intent, it may go overlooked because we don’t use the word as it originally intended.



How do you know what is going on with your child? How do you know what they intend to do? I can’t answer that, but I can give you a few signs to watch for.

  • What is going on in their social life? Teens are on an emotional rollercoaster, and this is often dictated by their social interactions or lack thereof. They will tell you they are better when they aren’t. They don’t want to be a burden, so trust what you see and not their words alone.

  • Trust your intuition and do something about it. Don’t be dismissive. Ask questions about friends, school, grades, teachers, relationships, and then share some of your own experiences at their age. Be supportive, spend time with them, and avoid condescending remarks.

  • Stick with it! Don’t do any of the above just once or twice. Do it on a regular basis. For instance, my son and I have tea and watch Naked and Afraid every night when he is not working. We chat throughout the episode and sometimes we turn it off to talk about more serious topics.

Again, be watchful of the children and teens in your life- wary of any of the problematic behaviors described above.


The line between NSSI and suicide is very blurry, and you are not alone in feeling confused, naïve, or overprotective!


If you are worried about your child, seek the help of a mental health professional to provide your family needed support.



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