Are you worried about a teenager you know?
Teens struggle with identity, responsibility, overwhelming emotions, belonging and relationships.
This can be frightening and confusing for many teenagers.
It can be a frightening time for parents to witness their teen struggling with depression, self-injury and self-esteem.
What is self-harm behavior?
Self-injury, self-harm, self-inflicted violence or self-mutilation is an act of physically hurting yourself on purpose in an effort to cope with an overwhelming and distressing feeling or situation.
Acts of self-inflicted violence are:
- Done to oneself
- Performed by oneself
- Physically violent
- Not suicidal
- Intentional and purposeful?
Here are the most common forms of teens hurting their bodies:
- Excessive scratching
- Hair pulling
- Intentional bone breaking
- Hitting or Bruising
- Interference with wound healing?
You may be struggling to understand this disturbing behavior. You may feel anxious that a teenager you know who cuts them self is suicidal or that they are ‘just’ seeking-attention.
It may be more accurate to think of them as attention-needing. Teens need those of us that work with them to understand what lies beneath the behaviour and help them find alternative ways to deal with their pain. They need empathy, compassion and care. They are clearly in trouble and are often expressing a problem that is going on in their family, school or community.
Self-injury is a behavior that over time becomes habitual, chronic and repetitive. Like any other bad habit, even though other people think the person should stop, most self-injurers have a hard time stopping – even when they realize it is unhealthy. Once an adolescent is in the cycle of self-injury, the smallest things might trigger self-harm behaviors.
Why do teens engage in self-harming behavior?
Self-harm is part of a cycle of triggering events, build up of tension and relief through self-harm.
Here is a list of most commonly cited reasons of why teens choose to self-injure:
A Method of Coping. Most commonly, self-harming behavior is a coping mechanism to deal with emotional pain, stress, or trauma. Self-inflicted violence is used as a way to temporarily feel better. This may be partly due to an increased level of endorphins that are released during self-injury producing numbing or pleasurable sensations.
Broad research indicates that there is a strong correlation between self-inflicted violence and a history of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
Self-injury helps some people feel better by giving them a way to physically express and release their tension. It lessens a desire to commit suicide. It ends the feeling of numbness. Cutting can validate teen’s feelings, creating a ‘real’ pain that is easier to cope with than the hidden emotional pain.
Establishing Control. Maintaining a sense of control when the rest of the life seems out of control can lead to self-mutilation. By planning and carrying out acts of self-harm, adolescents, in a sense, structure their life by controlling their emotional states (their feelings of isolation, frustration, loneliness, and sadness). Teens may also hurt themselves in order to control intrusive, obsessive, or otherwise unwanted thoughts.
Self-punishment. Some teens believe that they deserve to be punished or believe that self-injury will prevent some other punishment. Excessive self-criticism leads to feelings of shame and blame, which lead in turn to self-punishment. Some teens who self-punish themselves do it due to history of abuse in their life and can be a way of enacting abuse. It does not alter the past or deal with it effectively but creates a way of remaining stuck in needing self-injury to find relief.
Communication. Self-mutilation can be an expression of emotional pain or feelings that teens struggle to put into words. Many teens who engage in self-harming behaviors need to learn how to communicate their feelings directly. Scars and wounds can serve as a way of expressing what teens think, feel, or experience. However, the meaning and messages behind an act of self-injury can be difficult to read. Often the person doing self-harm is unconscious of what they are trying to say.
What are some signs that your teenager may be self-mutilating?
Since adolescents often engage in self-harming behaviors alone, parents may not be aware that this problem exists.
Here are some signs of self-injury, such as:
- An abnormal number of cuts/burns on the wrists, arms, legs, hips or stomach;
- Wearing of long sleeves and pants even in warm weather to cover the marks;
- Frequent ‘accidents’ that cause physical injury;
- Evidence that your teenager's friends are self-mutilating;
- Finding razors or knives in strange locations;
- Your teen locking themselves away for long periods of time in their bedroom or bathroom;
- Reluctance to be part of a social circle or social event.?
What can parents and other adults do to help an adolescent who self-harm?
- Don't panic or get angry if you discover your teen is engaging in self-injurious behaviors. Address your teen calmly and lovingly. Reacting loudly or angrily can often push your teen further away and increase the self harming behaviors.
- Remember that most teenagers engaging in self-injurious behavior are not attempting suicide.
- Do not judge or blame your adolescent for what has happened. Try hard to cover any feelings of disgust associated with cutting or burning. They are already condemning themselves and it is easy to shame them further.
- Avoid issuing ultimatums and asking your adolescent to stop self-injuring – you may be removing the only coping mechanism they have. An alternative and healthier coping mechanism needs to be found first. Understand that this is not the time for discipline or punishment.
- Acknowledge that the behavior is a coping mechanism and not just a bizarre habit and is only a symptom of a more serious underlying problem.
- Try to listen to what your child is saying. Spend time with them. Assure your teen that you love and care for her/him and will assist them in getting help. They are most likely unable to explain why. Feeling isolated and misunderstood is a major contributor to self-mutilation.
- Remember to seek help for yourself. Caring for a child who self-harms is difficult. Don’t be afraid to seek extra support while you are helping your child.
- (School staff) Keep an individual focus rather than a group focus on self-injurious behavior at school in order to avoid imitating behaviors. Any activities that detail self-harm behaviors (movies, television programs, support groups, etc.) can trigger self-injury in at-risk adolescents.
- Know that counseling for a teen that self-injures is crucial! Addressing the pain that underlies self-injury most often requires professional help for both teens and parents.
Seek professional help!
Research indicates that a combination of individual and family therapy with a self-harm experienced counselor has been most effective in helping teens move past self-injury.
Individual counseling, I can help your teen address the root of the problem – the emotion that is causing the urge to injure. I can assist your teen in learning to identify the triggers that lead to the desire to self-inflict physical pain. I can also help your teen find healthy coping skills to deal with negative emotions, so that they don’t keep returning to self-injury or other ways of distracting when distressing circumstances arise.
Family therapy with me can help you address the difficulties in your family related to your teen’s self-harming behaviors. In our family therapy sessions, I can help you improve the lines of communication with your teenager. I can also aid in the healthy expression of feelings and new ways of handling family interactions for the entire family.
To make an appointment:
- 608-402 W. Pender St, (Homer/Pender)
- Suite 223, 1628 West 1st Avenue (near Fir)