Recognizing & Healing Self-Harm in Teens

by Mark Gregston

It’s difficult to discuss the teenage years and not touch upon the topic of self-harm. 

About ten years ago, I was on a radio program and the hosts said that they wanted to talk about a new thing called, cutting.  And I remember saying to them, “Oh, no. No.  It’s not new.  Cutting or some type of self-harm is mentioned in Mark 5:5: ‘Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” 

Self-harm has been around a long time, but it wasn’t heard of as much as it is today.  Think back to your own teenage years.  There was a tremendous amount of growing and figuring things out.  Now, throw in today’s constant need to perform—or be “on” all the time while you’re trying to figure things out.  It’s a literal pressure cooker of being accepted, liked, and understood. 

It’s common place and culturally acceptable nowadays for teens to self-harm or act out in destructive ways to relieve the stress they feel.  They can even go on YouTube and watch instructional videos on how to self-harm.  I mean, that’s something that was unheard of until just a few years ago. 

But know this, self-harm isn’t just about cutting—and it’s not always suicidal.  For many teens, it’s a cry for help, or a way for them to find relief.  And in all cases, it’s an unhealthy way of dealing with the world around them.  So, as parents, we need to learn how we can help our teens cope. 

#1 What’s Behind Self-Harm? 

There are several types of self-harm—things you’ve probably thought about before, or heard of like, cutting and burning, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide attempts.  But there are others that are just as serious.  Take for instance, dangerous games—ones that you’ve probably thought, why would anyone try that?  All across the world, games like the Tide Pod challenge, the Blue Whale challenge, the Salt and Ice challenge are popping up and putting kids in harm’s way.  And while there is an element of hype to these challenges, ultimately, they’re self-harming.  And then there’s isolation or extreme exercise regimens.  These may seem like healthier alternatives to drugs and alcohol or even cutting, but the root cause is still the same. 

So, what’s causing it? 

Well, all of these self-harm tactics are symptom of something deeper—anxiety and a desire to fit in, to be understood, and to be accepted for who they are.  So, teens are taking risks and not caring about the consequences because they just want relief from the intensity of our 24/7 “on-demand” culture. 

Self-harm provides teens with a false sense of control—but the reality is that in harmful situations, no one is in control. 

#2 What Can Parents Do? 

First things, first—don’t panic.  But do figure out what’s going on.  The Bible tells us not to lean on our understanding.  And that’s great advice!  You need to find out if your teen is just experimenting, showing off, or if there’s something more significant going on.  And if you need to, seek medical help and counseling. 

Then, get to the bottom of the issue.  There’s a reason your child is behaving this way, and it’s your job to find out why.  Find ways to engage and connect with your teen.  Ask questions—even if it’s hard.  You need to find ways to open the door of discussion.  If your teen is acting out just for show—you need to impose a consequence.  Self-harm isn’t an issue to be taken lightly. 

And finally, commit to making your home a relaxing and restful place.  This is one area where you as the parent have a lot of control, and it can help alleviate your teen’s desire to self-harm. 

Parenting through the teen years is like putting together a puzzle, and if it weren’t for the dark and jagged pieces that seemingly have no purpose, the puzzle would not become the masterpiece it was created to be.  One of these days, you’ll be able to look back and say, “Now, I see how it all fits together!” 


Moms and Dads … the current teen culture is quite contrary to many of the biblical values and principles that we want to build into the lives of our teens.  The pressure builds—not only with parents, but in the life of your child as well.  So, know this—your teen will find a way to relieve the pressure, whether that’s in healthy ways, or unhealthy ways.  They want relief, just as much as you do.  So, sit down and start having discussions about reducing the stress in your home, so that it can become a place of relief and rest for your teen.  Change up some of your old expectations and lighten up on just a couple of your rules.  Small changes can have some amazingly huge effects! 


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.  His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,700 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.

Teens and Suicide

#487 – Student Story: Christian

with host Mark Gregston

When your teen begins pushing you away, it’s a sign they need you more than ever. Could your teen be exhibiting the signs of serious depression?

This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston gives eight telltale signs that your teen might be in over his head—and how you can protect him from thoughts of self-destruction or suicide.

For free parenting resources, please click here.

For the latest on how to parent your teen, please visit the Parenting Today’s Teens website or our bookstore.

If you listen on a mobile phone or tablet, please download our Parenting Today’s Teens app available for Apple or Android. If you listen on a desktop or laptop computer, press the “play” button above to enjoy daily parenting advice.

For any more info on Parenting Today’s Teens or Heartlight, please visit https://parentingtodaysteens.org/ -or- https://www.heartlightministries.org/.

When Teens Harm Themselves

Student Story: Jordan

It’s always distressing when a parent discovers that their son or daughter is inflicting self-harm. But most likely, this alarming behavior points to an even greater issue lying underneath. This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston helps moms and dads talk about the hard issues with their teen.

If you listen on a mobile phone or tablet, please download our Parenting Today’s Teens app available for Apple or Android. If you listen on a desktop or laptop computer, press the “play” button above to enjoy daily parenting advice.