Self-harm normally refers to the actions of a person who hurts themselves in order to relieve emotional pain or distress. It serves the purpose of making emotional pain physical and, in the view of some who self-harm, easier to deal with than the emotional pain itself. It is estimated that around one half to one third of 15 to 16-year-old girls in the U.S. engage in self-harm. Common types of self-harm include cutting or burning oneself, with less common and more dangerous types taking the form of pulling out hair or ingesting toxic substances. Contrary to popular public opinion, most cases of self-harm are not meant to be a suicidal precursor but rather an alternative coping mechanism.
Teenage self-harm isn’t a simple issue, and it affects individuals from all cultural and socio-economic positions in life. It has been found that at least one in 12 teens self-harm, though it is more common in females than it is in males.
Either way, there are multiple physical, psychological and emotional factors that can influence a teen when they turn to self-harm. These can include distraction from emotional distress, a way to deal with feelings that they do not have the tools to deal with or a reaction to feeling worthless or feeling that they need to be punished for something. Other reasons may include feelings of isolation from parents or friends, wanting to feel included among a certain group of other teens or ways of coping with negative body image or not feeling like they have any control in their lives.
One sought-after effect that comes from teen self-harm is a rush of endorphins triggered by cutting, burning or other harmful acts. These endorphins create numbing or pleasurable sensations which can distract a teen from their thoughts and feelings and numb them, essentially providing a quick feeling of relief. Besides the obvious problem that self-harm can create for a teen’s physical health, it can also seriously damage their emotional health as they use self-harm to improperly deal with their emotions rather than working through them in a healthy way. These problems can last too, as around 10 percent of teens who self-harm continue to do so into adulthood.
Parents should be encouraged to spend time with their teens and give them some control and responsibility in planning family activities. This allows the teen to find their place and a sense of belonging in the family unit rather than feeling distanced. Additionally, being supportive of the teen is helpful too and it allows them to feel safe when discussing their emotions or allowing them to feel heard when a conflict arises. This does not mean that a parent should not establish boundaries and rules, but rather that they should do so while making sure teens feel loved.
If the parent starts noticing burns, cuts or frequent injuries on the teen, it may be time to talk about treating the underlying problem causing them to self-harm. Family therapy can be extremely effective in helping to indentify the motivations behind self-harm and deal with them.
It may also help to improve communication between family members, teach conflict-resolution and teach problem-solving skills so the self-harming tendencies don’t resurface.
In some cases, medication may be used along with therapy to help counteract self-harm and serious underlying issues such as depression. It may be a good idea to look into a treatment program as well in order to help deal with any and all issues that the teen may be dealing with.
Self-harm can be halted and replaced with healthy emotional processing if family and friends work in support of the teen and help them to find the proper treatment. If you’d like to learn more about self-harm treatment options or mental health disorders, contact White River Academy’s Admissions Team at 866-520-0905.