Self-harm is when a person deliberately hurts themselves and causes physical pain. They usually engage in this behaviour to cope with complicated feelings or situations. It is a way to try and get control of emotions or relieve tension from stressful situations. Some teens will hurt themselves to “feel something” rather than feel nothing, hopeless or empty. It can also be an act of “getting back” at someone or trying to influence someone’s behaviour.
Several teens and young adults inflict pain or hurt themselves on purpose as a coping mechanism to deal with an underlying issue in their lives. Recent studies estimate that between 15 to 20% of teens harm themselves, and between 10 to 30% of teens admitted attempting to hurt themselves. Studies show that teens who inflict pain are more common amongst adolescent females.
It can be difficult, frustrating, and confusing for a parent to understand why their child would engage in self-harm. Parents might not know how to assist their child in developing healthier coping mechanisms.
A teen who cuts or burns themselves will direct their focus on the injury to avoid the cause of the pain and not deal with the actual emotions or discomfort they are experiencing. The injury itself will release endorphins into their bloodstream, providing temporary relief and boosting their mood. For example, a stressed-out teen will cut their arms or legs to get relief from the overwhelming stress experienced, or a teen struggling with a break-up or dealing with divorced parents might cut their chest to relieve the emotional pain. They will hurt themselves to reduce feelings of sadness, anger or distract themselves from their problems.
No matter the reason, self-harm is generally a sign of deep emotional distress. Teens who engage in self-injury are more likely to have friends who hurt themselves, have low self-esteem, have a history of abuse, and/or have thoughts of committing suicide.
Self-harm can happen in many forms and might include:
- cutting, scratching, carving, or marking the body with a sharp object like a razor blade, knife, or scissors.
- burning the skin with a cigarette, match, or lighter.
- constantly hitting a particular part of the body to cause bruising.
- banging the head against a wall.
- pulling hair.
- re-opening or picking at wounds.
- biting or pinching the skin.
- overdosing on medication.
Most teens try and hide their self-injuries. They feel ashamed of their behaviour and worry that people will judge or reject them.
If you are concerned that your teen is self-harming, here are some signs to watch out for:
- They always wear long sleeve shirts or pants (even in warm weather) to cover their injuries.
- They can’t or refuse to explain why they have cuts, scratches, burns, or marks on their bodies.
- They are low in energy and seem to be constantly tired.
- They stop caring about their appearance.
- They often have mood swings and have trouble controlling their emotions.
- They are irritable most of the time.
- They have temper outbursts or cry for no reason.
- They experience feelings of sadness, worthlessness, emptiness, or hopelessness.
- They develop symptoms of depression or anxiety.
- A drop in school performance or school attendance.
- Changes in their sleep pattern.
- Changes in their eating habits leading to poor nutrition, weight gain, or weight loss.
- Changes in their social activity, interacting with fewer friends, or putting an end to recreational activities.
- Avoiding activities where their arms and or legs are visible, for instance, swimming.
- Hiding objects like razor blades, knives, scissors, matches, or lighters.
What can parents do?
Accept your emotions
When you know or suspect your teen is engaging in self-injury behaviour, it is natural to blame yourself. You might experience sadness, guilt, anger, and anxiety; however, it is normal to have these emotions. Do not blame yourself, and it is not your fault or your teen’s fault. Identify, accept and express your feelings healthily by crying or talking to a friend or therapist. It is vital to be a role model to your teen and show them how to handle difficult situations and express their feelings in a safe environment.
Acquire knowledge and learn about self-harm.
Do the research and find out about self-harm in teens, why they do it, and what you can do to stop it. Try and identify why your teen is inflicting self-harm. Some teens will injure themselves due to trauma or painful experiences that you might not be aware of. Peer pressure might also play a role. Social or academic pressure (to be top performers) may cause them to struggle in accepting failures, mistakes, or poor performance. Explore what prompts your teen to self-harm.
Talk and listen to your child.
Ask your teen directly if they are hurting themselves. Do it in a calm, respectful way without judging or blaming them. Bear in mind that they might feel ashamed of their behaviour and don’t want to talk about it. Ask relevant questions and let them know you are there to support them and that you will not react with punishment, scolding, or lectures. Validate their feelings. Listen actively without interrupting them and do not respond with anger, disappointment, or threats. Obtain insight into your child’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviour. Ask them how you can assist them.
Seek professional help
It is crucial to get to the root cause of your teens’ self-harm behaviour. Seek assistance from a healthcare professional, school counsellor, or life coach. Therapy will allow a teen to tell their story, put difficult experiences in words, and teach them how to deal with stressful situations. Sometimes a broken home or criticizing parents can cause their behaviour. Talking to an outside party might make them feel more comfortable. Counsellors can identify the triggers and teach teens better ways to cope and handle their thoughts and emotions.
Be patient and positive with your teen.
It will be a lengthy process, it’s necessary to be patient with your teen. It takes time to uncover the underlying issue, time to stop the self-harm, and learn new coping skills. Give your teen love, support and motivate them to work through the process. Offer words of encouragement and stay involved with your teens’ therapy. There will be difficult days, and some teens will fall back into the habit, but you need to stay positive and reinforce that you will support them all the way.
Identify activities and a list of people to talk to
Find activities for your teen that they can do when they feel the urge to self-harm. Going for a walk, talking to friends, taking on a hobby, or meditation could help them express their feelings more healthily.
Create a list of trusted people they can talk to when they feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to cope with the pressure or stress. It can be a family member or a counsellor.
Self-harm is daunting for any parent to deal with. Still, if you can identify it early on, you can offer support and professional assistance to your teen so they can successfully stop self-harming. Parents need to control their emotions and find a healthy way to express their feelings. They need to get support for themselves so that they will be able to provide the calm, steady support and love that their teen requires. Assist your teen in learning positive ways of handling stress, pressure, or negative feelings. This may stop self-harming and prevent future self-injuries.
You are not alone.
Should you require a life coach for your teen or yourself, please feel free to reach out to me.
Debbie Hartmann, Life, Relationship and Teen Coach @My Kinda Life Coaching.