How Bullying Increases Risk for Self-Harm in Teens

Teen in front of a stormy sky

Verywell / Caitlin Rogers

Experiencing bullying is not without consequences. In fact, bullying often has a lasting impact on the people targeted and the consequences can last a lifetime. Teens and children who have been targeted by bullies often struggle with things like anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, and low self-esteem for years after the bullying has long since ended.

To cope with these negative consequences, some kids even resort to self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning themselves. Here's everything you need to know about self-harm and the connection to bullying.

What Is Self-Harm?

When most people think of self-harm or self-injury, they think of cutting. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anytime someone deliberately hurts themself, this is considered self-harm. Some kids resort to burning themselves, pulling out their hair, or picking at wounds. There is even a trend toward digital self-harm where kids anonymously post hurtful things about themselves online.

Engaging in self-harm is almost always a sign of emotional distress. Many times, teens who are self-harming may be using these hurtful behaviors as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable emotions and painful memories. And because cutting or burning can leave scars and are often noticeable to others, self-harm can cause intense feelings of shame, which in some cases may keep teens stuck in a cycle of harming themselves over and over again.

It's important to note that self-harm is not a mental illness. Instead, it's a behavior that indicates the person needs to develop better coping skills. However, there are several mental illnesses associated with self-harm including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder.

Why Teens Engage in Self Harm

Overall, self-harm is a widespread problem with more than 15% of teens and young adults in the United States engaging in this behavior. Although there are a number of different reasons why someone might engage in self-harm, many times it is used to relieve stress and tension. Other reasons teens and young adults might engage in self-harm include:

  • Making themselves feel something when they feel numb or empty
  • Blocking out painful or upsetting memories
  • Releasing overwhelming or pent up feelings, emotions, and frustrations
  • Punishing themselves for making a mistake or not living up to certain standards
  • Taking back control in their lives
  • Demonstrating that they need help

Connection Between Bullying and Self-Harm

Research shows that experiencing bullying is associated with an increased risk of self-harming behavior in young people. In fact, one study conducted by researchers at Kings College London found that children between the ages of 5 and 12 who were frequently bullied were three times more likely to harm themselves when compared with children who were not bullied.

Meanwhile, another study found that teens who are cyberbullied were more than twice as likely to self-harm, exhibit suicidal behaviors, have suicidal thoughts, and attempt suicide.

However, the researchers from the Kings College study also note that while a victim of bullying's risk factors for self-harm increase, the majority of teens who have been bullied do not resort to self-harm.

For this reason, they recommend that those working with bullied youth determine which teens are at the highest risk for self-harming behaviors. Other risk factors for self-harm include growing up in poverty, having a pre-existing mental health issue, a family history of self-harm, low IQ, and maltreatment.

What Parents Can Do

If you suspect that your teen is engaging in self-harm or is susceptible to self-harming behaviors, it's important that you open the lines of communication with your teen as well as familiarize yourself with the signs of self-harming behavior. In general, kids who self-harm are more likely to:

  • Have frequent cuts, bruises, burns, scratches, or scars
  • Show signs of eating disordered behavior
  • Wear long sleeves and pants even in hot weather
  • Make excuses for their injuries
  • Have sharp objects in their room or their bags for no reason
  • Maintain friendships with people who self-harm
  • Have a low self-esteem
  • Struggle with depression, an eating disorder, or PTSD
  • Misuse drugs or alcohol
  • Express intense feelings such as anger, hopelessness, or loneliness

You also need to make sure that you're not judgmental when interacting with your teen about their self-harming behaviors. Instead, try to understand what is motivating them to hurt themselves. Listen to what they have to say without trying to fix the situation, lecturing them, or demanding that they stop. Self-harm is not something teens can turn on and off like a light. They will need help and guidance from a trained professional.

Remember, the emotions your teen is experiencing can be really painful and overwhelming at times. And while it's completely normal to need a way to release strong emotions, self-harm is not a constructive way to cope with uncomfortable feelings. For this reason, you need to find a qualified mental health professional to assist your teen not only in ending these behaviors, but in healing from the bullying or other life events that are troubling them.

A counselor can help your teen identify why they are hurting themself as well as help them discover why they might want to change their behavior. They also can help your teen identify other, healthier ways of coping with their feelings as well as tackle their underlying emotions or any co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

A Word From Verywell

Knowing that your teen deliberately harms themself on a regular basis, can be excruciatingly painful. But with your consistent support, regular communication, and continued patience your teen will get through this situation and come out stronger than ever. To do this, your teen needs counseling from a trained professional.

Through regular counseling and support by you, your teen can learn healthier ways of coping and can build their self-esteem. You also can connect your teen to the Self-Harm Crisis Text Line by letting them know they can text HOME to 741741 when they are tempted to harm themselves. They will be connected to a trained advocate who can help them strategize healthy coping mechanisms and keep from resorting back to old habits.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Self-harm.

  2. Lereya ST, Winsper C, Heron J, et al. Being bullied during childhood and the prospective pathways to self-harm in late adolescenceJournal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2013;52(6):608-618.e2. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.03.012

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Self-harm.

  4. Fisher HL, Moffitt TE, Houts RM, Belsky DW, Arseneault L, Caspi A. Bullying victimization and risk of self harm in early adolescence: longitudinal cohort studyBMJ. 2012;344(apr26 2):e2683-e2683. doi:10.1136/bmj.e2683

  5. John A, Glendenning AC, Marchant A, et al. Self-harm, suicidal behaviours, and cyberbullying in children and young people: systematic reviewJ Med Internet Res. 2018;20(4):e129. doi:10.2196/jmir.9044

  6. Crisis Text Line. How to deal with self-harm.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.