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Why Teens Self-Harm

Don’t be too alarmed if this is your child or a student of yours. Over reacting certainly isn’t what is going to help in the moment you become aware your child or student is engaging in self-harm.

This is very common today and although I know it is quite alarming it should be taken seriously but know that the individual who is engaging in self-harm is asking for help and they need you to respond appropriately.

Teen stress, anxiety, and mood changes is experienced by everyone but it is different for different people, especially our youth who are navigating the adolescence years. Our youth all respond differently. Some might be jumpy or afraid under stress, while others feel frustration and anger, overwhelming sadness, alone, burdensome, fear of the unknown, and lots of anxiety. Some teens to self-harm to cope with their emotions. I think it is a cry for help, but teens are apprehensive to ask for help from a parent or a trusted adult. One of the main reasons, amongst others too, is that they don’t want to burden anyone with their emotions.

Emergency rooms are seeing a rise in treatment of girls and young ladies between the ages of 10-24 years old who are intentionally harming themselves. Teen suicide is a healthcare crisis that is alarming and very concerning to today’s parents and school administrators. Parents are a vital piece of the crisis prevention and getting your teens the help they need. Please take all these signs seriously and don’t self-diagnose your child without seeing a mental health professional.

What is Self-Harm or Cutting?

The short answer is self-harm or cutting oneself is to hurt yourself on purpose. The most common type of self-harm is cutting into the skin, but also burning the skin, picking at wounds to prevent healing, picking at skin, biting or scratching at the skin, ingesting poison or self-medicating with pills without the intent to die by suicide, and pulling out hair are all methods of self-harm.

Self-harm is a sign of emotional distress. Engaging in self-harm relieves stress, anxiety, and emotional pain. Self-harm relives tension for the moment, and as our youth today are living in the here and the now this is quite pleasant for them. They are in control at the moment, but while this makes the individual feel better in the moment it gives the individual the false belief that this coping strategy actually works.

The emotional pain they’re experiencing is now numb to the physical pain they’re feeling. This dangerous and alarming practice of self-harm is helpful to the individual harming themselves in the very moment, but the reality is that it’s a temporary escape that can result in a lifetime of coping if they don’t learn how to manage their emotional pain.

The individual who self-harms is looking to release tension or looking to feel something. Some might use self-harm to distract themselves, to avoid their emotions, to get attention from adults or their peers, or to even punish themselves. The teens I’ve met and discussed self-harm with say that they get a temporary feeling of relief, but it also is a feeling of shame and embarrassment.

Why Teens Are Cutting?

Self-harm is not considered to be a mental disorder, but it is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-harm indicates that the individual doesn’t have good coping or problem solving skills. Risk factors also include trauma, neglect, rejection, or abuse.

When an individual is angry, feeling frustration, or emotional pain this is where thoughts of self-harm occur. In some cases, the self-injury stimulates the body’s pain-killing hormones and provides a temporary feeling of uplifted mood. In other cases, teens might turn to cutting to feel pain in an effort to get away from a feeling of emotional numbness.

Following cutting, teens can experience feelings of shame and guilt. This perpetuates the cycle of overwhelming emotions followed by negative coping strategies. It can become a dangerous cycle that is difficult to break.

This is exactly why when you become aware it is not the time to react in anger or disappointment. The child or student needs your support and unconditional love because they’re asking for help without judgement.

Self-harm is not the same as suicidal behavior, but there is an elevated risk of suicidal behavior for individuals who are self-harming. I think self-harming is an individuals cry for help but they don’t know how to ask.

Social Media And Self-Harm?

Efforts by social media platforms are trying to curb posting images, videos, and other disturbing content that promotes or normalizes self-harms, and clear guidelines (if you read the guidelines), images and content continue to get through. You can search #cutting on Instagram and a pop-up window appears to warn you about content within the hashtag and asks if you need help. Right now I think this is a band-aid to the big issue, but it’s a step in the right direction. The problem is that it is easy to decline the offer and proceed to the triggering content.

Teens sometimes turn to social media to find support, but they also turn to social media to validate or normalize their self-harm. There are hashtags specifically created to help people who self-harm support one another in making positive choices when they feel the urge, but there are also hashtags that show some fairly disturbing content. Given that teens are savvy social media users, they also create new hashtags to get around banned hashtags or hashtags that are watched by social media sites. While #selfharm might be on the radar of social media sites, #selfharmmmm might not.

It’s difficult to draw a direct link between social media use and exacerbated self-harm behaviors among teens without sufficient data, but self-harm hashtags and communities online certainly can normalize the behavior. This is the technology world we are living in today and it is not going away.

How to Help a Teen Who Engages in Self-Harm

Teens who self-harm are depressed or overwhelmed by anxiety, stress, or pressure. They also tend to be skilled at hiding their pain from friends, parents, teachers, and coaches. They can post anonymously online to find support and a community. If they find a recovery community, they can share their experiences through journaling, messaging, or even art. This can be helpful for teens. If, on the other hand, they stumble upon on a community that supports the self-harm behavior, it can result in teens feeling helpless and continuing the behavior.

Teens who self-harm need a mental health professional, not their family physican. Seek a referral for a psychiatrist or psychotherapist who specializes in adolescents and self-harm. Depending on the underlying triggers and emotions beneath the self-harm behaviors, there are different types of therapeutic interventions:

• Psychodynamic therapy helps people explore past experiences and emotions
• Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on recognizing negative thought patterns and learning positive alternatives
• Dialectical behavior therapy can help teens learn positive coping strategies
If there is an underlying anxiety or depressive disorder, medication might be prescribed. Group work can be beneficial in helping teens connect with other teens and support one another through the recovery process.

If symptoms are severe or potentially dangerous, hospitalization might be necessary.

If you are concerned that your teen is engaging in self-harm it is important to remain calm and talk about the behavior with your teen without judgment. It’s essential that you seek treatment right away. With proper support in place, any individual can learn positive coping strategies to target overwhelming emotions and learn to manage their emotions in a healthy and effective way to grow and mature through life’s stresses.

Jeff Yalden is an Educational Consultant who specializes in Teen Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. Jeff works with school communities by visiting schools and speaking to teens, teachers, parents and the community. For more information about Jeff Yalden, please visit www.TheJYF.org.