What is Self-harm?
The term self-harm is any intentional or deliberate act that causes harm or injury one’s body, without suicidal intent. Self-harm considered a compulsive behavior, and has the potential to afflict anyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. Yet, out of the 2 million individuals who self-harm each year, 90% of them began this behavior in their teenage years.
There are many different self-harm methods people use, including cutting, burning, pulling hair, scratching, etc.
Risk Factors of Self-harm
While there are no specific identified causes of self-harm in teens, there do remain risk factors that increase the likelihood of your child engaging in these self-injurious behaviors, including:
History of sexual abuse
Approximately 50% of adolescents and teenagers who self-harm have experienced some sort of sexual abuse in their past.
Being a female
Statistics show more than 60% of teens who engage in self-harm are female.
Why Your Teen May Be Self-harming
Self-harm in teens is often a result of trying to cope with emotional distress, or the difficult symptoms of an underlying mental illness (i.e. – anxiety, depression, etc.).
Other reasons teens use self-injurious behaviors include:
- Being the victim of bullying
- Increased stress levels
- A disturbing family life
- Loneliness or lack of social support
- Feeling emotionally disconnected from parents or caregivers
- Desire to “fit in” with a group of friends or peers who encourage self-injurious behaviors.
- Feeling emotionally “dead” inside
- Feeling “invisible” to parents, caregivers, or peers.
For many teens, self-harm behaviors result in a calming affect or a sense of a release from overwhelming emotion. Essentially, self-harm can be used as an attempt at instant release from emotional pain. For other teens, self-harm provides a sense of control when other areas of life might seem out of control or chaotic.
Regardless of the possible reason your teen engages in self-injurious behaviors, there is a general outcome underlying all self-harm. Self-harm induces what is called the “endorphin effect.” Cutting, burning, punching, or other self-harm behaviors allow for endorphins to be quickly secreted into the bloodstream, thus providing a numbing and/or pleasurable sensation. This means your teen may be numbing out difficult thoughts or unpleasant feelings, or experiencing a feeling of being “high” from the experience.
Warning Signs of Self-harm
If you think your teen may be participating in self-injurious behavior, there are some warning signs to look out for:
- Frequent, unexplained injuries, such as cuts or burns
- Recurrent complaints of unintentional or accidental injury (i.e. – “the cat scratched my arm again.”)
- Wearing concealing clothing consistently, even if the weather is warm (i.e. – long sleeves and pants in the summer months)
- Increased isolation or avoiding social settings (especially social situations that involve wearing less clothing (i.e. – a pool party)
- Poor functioning in daily activities, including work or school
- Difficulty managing emotions, or dealing with depression or anxiety
Although knowing the warning signs is significant, it is important to understand that individuals who self-harm are often secretive. People struggling frequently go to significant lengths to conceal any physical signs of the self-harm. This means, they may wear clothing that provides coverage, such as long pants and long sleeved shirts. Alternatively, they may choose to self-harm in areas of the body that are not readily visible, such as the inner thigh or stomach areas.
How You Can Help
If you have a teenager who struggles with self-harm, it is important to seek the support of a mental health professional. However, there are some things you can do to help support your child through this difficult time.
- Do encourage him or her to speak up about his or her self-harm.
- Do take the self-harm seriously. It is NOT about attention seeking.
- Do be someone who is a compassionate, nonjudgmental listener.
- Do encourage professional treatment.
- Do try to understand; don’t scold
Self-harming behavior is extremely harmful, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Education is vital in the the push towards awareness, improved treatment options, and ultimately eradication.
Self-harm can be devastating and extremely destructive to your teen’s wellbeing. Thankfully, it can be treated. There are various approaches to treating self-injurious behaviors, including:
Psychological intervention can take place in a number of settings, such as inpatient treatment facilities, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), group therapy, or individual outpatient therapy. Different approaches to psychological treatment can exist in any of these settings including, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), or general talk therapy.
Psychiatric medication is not necessarily the most common route of treatment when it comes to self-injurious behaviors. Yet, for many, prescribed medication can help manage the underlying mental illness (i.e. – depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.) driving a teen’s self-harm.