Self-injurious behavior in adolescents is often used as an emotional release or to serve as a distraction from distress.
The relief that teens may experience is temporary and it is important to learn healthy coping skills to handle distress. While self-injurious behavior is frightening to parents and of great concern, typically self-harm behaviors are not the same as suicidal attempts. Adolescents who cut, burn or use other methods to harm themselves are usually wanting to cope with distress and emotions, not end their lives. Self-injurious behavior becomes a way to feel or cope. It is important that parents not react to the discovery of self-harm with punishment but instead offer support and encouragement. Therapy is recommended in order to help an adolescent learn healthier coping skills to manage feelings of low self-worth and self-defeating thinking. A therapist who specializes in treating self-injurious behavior may help a teen identify the triggers to self-harm and develop strategies to handle distress and pain.
What is self-injury?
Self-injury is when people deliberately harm themselves and damage bodily tissue. Self-injury takes many forms, most common forms of self-injury include: cutting, burning, carving into the skin, interfering with wound healing, hitting oneself, insertion of objects under the skin, and intentional bone breaking. Additionally, self-injury is culturally sanctioned, as self-injury only refers to behaviors that are not socially acceptable within the individual’s environment. That is, many new forms of body art (i.e. extensive tattooing, body modification, piercing, etc.) are NOT currently considered to be self-injurious due to their cultural acceptance.
Why do people hurt themselves?
People engage in self-injurious behaviors for various reasons. Some people harm themselves to make pain go away. Stress can be a trigger to self-injury, as some people may feel overwhelmed or unable to cope with the stress. When many stressful events build up, the individual may engage in self-injury in an attempt to relieve the stress and negative feelings that may go along with it. Self-injury may help the individual to feel in control of their lives momentarily. Self-injury can also be a way of dealing with symptoms of other mental health concerns, such as depressionand anxiety.
Some people may self-harm as a way of feeling something.Often times, these individuals feel “numb,” disconnected from their lives, or alone. Self-injury reminds the individual that they are alive and real. Individuals may self-injure as a way to communicate, as a response to negative body image, and as a way to connect with others.
Are people that hurt themselves trying to commit suicide?
Most often, no. Although individuals who attempt suicide have commonly self-injured in the past, engaging in self-injurious behaviors is not a suicidal behavior. Self-injury is usually an attempt to stay alive, while reducing pain.
What do you do if you think your child self-injures?
If you suspect that your child is self-injuring, it is important to remain calm and to avoid reacting in a judgmental and blaming manner. Understandably, this can be a scary and frustrating experience, though be careful not to express anger or disappointment in your child, as this may exacerbate the problem. Although you may want to understand your child and their motivation to self-harm, they might not be able to fully explain why they do what they do or how they feel. Try not to force your child into talking about their feelings/self-injury.
It is okay to communicate to your child that you care about them and are willing to listen if they need to talk. When talking with your child, it is also okay to let them know when you are having trouble understanding them. Be patient with your child. Concentrate on connecting with your child in positive ways, engage in a meaningful task together, inquire about your child’s interests, and help them to practice healthy coping skills. Encourage your child to speak with a psychologist who has training in helping those who self-injure. Parents have a huge influence on their children, though often times, parents need additional resources when a child self-injures. It may also help if the parent seeks therapy to help them deal with the emotions elicited by their children and to learn new ways of interacting with the children at home.
If you suspect your child is suicidal, please call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency department.
What to do if you self-injure:
Most importantly, if you are having thoughts of suicide, please call 911 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also ask a support person to take you to the nearest emergency department.
Counseling can be a key tool in managing self-injury. Therapists at Metta Psychology Group can help you to identify the purpose of your self-injury and learn effective coping skills with the hopes of reducing the harmful behaviors. Therapists can also aid in managing symptoms of other mental health concerns that may be related, such as depression and anxiety.
Understanding the purpose and meaning behind these behaviors is an integral part of learning to manage in a healthier way. It is important to work with a therapist that understands self-injury and can provide logical, evidence-based treatments. It can be hard to take the first step, let us help you.