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Self-Harm in Teenagers: Why Do Teenagers Cut Themselves?

Self-harm or self-injury can be defined as a person carrying out deliberate action on themselves which is intended to cause pain. People do this as a coping mechanism for overwhelming and difficult emotions, as they do not have the emotional tools to cope in a healthy manner. Although self-harm is not a mental illness, it is a sign of deep distress and should always be taken seriously.

Different Types of Self-Harm in Teens

Self-harm can manifest in a number of ways, ranging in seriousness and visibility depending on the method, including:

  • Picking at scabs so they don’t heal
  • Hair picking and pulling
  • Burning or grazing the skin
  • Cutting, scratching, carving, branding, or marking the body using sharp objects
  • Someone biting, pinching, bruising, or hitting their own body
  • Hitting a part of the body on something hard to cause themselves physical pain
  • Participating in unsafe sex
  • Substance abuse
  • Starvation

Self-cyberbullying or digital self-harm is also another common form of self-harm in young people – a serious mental health issue that may cause emotional pain. Here, individuals may create an alternative identity on social media platforms and post cruel comments about themselves.

Different Types of Self-Harm in Teens

What Factors Increase the Chance of Self-Harm in Teens?

Self-injury is pretty common in teenagers, with around 15 to 20% harming themselves at least once. There are some factors that result in an increased risk of partaking in the activity, including:

  • Having other mental health conditions (depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders)
  • Having a substance abuse disorder
  • Being female
  • Are in the LBGTQ+ community
  • Are an asylum seeker
  • Are in prison
  • Are a survivor of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Have experienced a loss due to suicide

Complications and Consequences of Self-Harming

If self-harm is continued over an extended period, it can become a habit or compulsion. In turn, this leads to serious scarring, injuries, medical conditions, or accidental death. Individuals who self-harm are also at a higher risk of attempting suicide.

Complications and Consequences of Self-Harming

Why Do Teenagers Self-Harm?

There is a multitude of reasons a person may turn to self-harm as a way to cope with their emotional pain. These include:

  • To gain a sense of control over their feelings: it allows people to feel like they can better control the pain they are experiencing in their body or environment.
  • To experience temporary emotional relief: for example, someone could self-harm during a depressive period to “feel something,” or when they are experiencing grief, using physical pain to create a more intense distracting feeling for a moment.
  • To feel a temporary hit of endorphins: self-inflicting an injury causes a stream of endorphins to be released into the bloodstream, providing a temporary boost in mood and relieving some stress.
  • To try and communicate their feelings: some people use self-harm as an outward sign they need help and feel hopeless.
  • To punish themselves: when someone’s self-esteem is low and they feel as though they hate themselves, self-harm is common. Commonly, people do not know where these feelings have come from and use this activity as a way to express this.

Self-Harm Warning Signs and Symptoms

People usually try to hide their self-harming behavior due to the fear of other people being angry with them, not understanding why they did it, rejecting them, and having general feelings of shame. There are a number of behavioral, emotional, and physical signs to look for if you suspect your loved one may be self-harming.

Behavioral signs of self-injury include:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping schedules
  • Isolating themselves from friends
  • Skipping school
  • A drop in performance in school
  • Always wearing clothing that covers their arms and legs
  • Avoiding activities where their arms, legs, or torso are on display
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Hiding dangerous or sharp objects, e.g., razor blades, stencil knives, lighters, and matches

Emotional signs of self-injury include:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and emptiness
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Large mood changes
  • Increased irritability
  • Ongoing temper outbursts
  • Stopping caring about their appearance

Physical signs of self-injury include:

  • Has unexplainable injuries they cannot or will not explain
  • Being agitated and lashing out
  • Visible slowness and tiredness due to having little energy

Physical signs of self-injury

How To Help Your Teen Child Who Self Harms

As a parent, finding your child self-harming is likely to bring about many difficult emotions in yourself – including fear, guilt, shock, panic, and anger. With the right guidance and approach, teens can learn to overcome this trying time and learn healthier ways to deal with their emotions.

What To Do When Finding a Teenager Self-Harming

If you find your teen self-harming, it can understandably be difficult to comprehend what is happening and why, with your child not likely having the words to explain it to you. However, it’s important that during this time your loved one feels supported and loved.

This can be achieved by:

  • Staying calm
  • Being respectful
  • Avoiding judgment, threats, and anger
  • Not assuming it’s for attention
  • Actively listening
  • Validate their feelings
  • Trying to gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and behavior
  • Thinking of some ideas to help with their difficulties
  • Letting them know these difficult and strong feelings are normal

Using these tips, a good way to approach the situation may be to say: “I love you. I can see that you are dealing with really strong emotions that I hadn’t realized were building up this much. I promise you can talk to me about this and I won’t get angry or judge you.”

It is common for people carrying out self-harming behavior to be unresponsive and zoned out during this time. In this situation, calmly ask the person to tell you where they are and if you can get help.

Attending to their injuries with first aid is vital for the self-harming individual’s health and healing, but also to let them know that their body is important and worth caring for. Calmly saying something like “Can I put some antiseptic on to help those cuts heal quicker?” or “I’d like to help you heal those cuts,” can go a long way.

How to Bringing Up the Subject of Self-Harm

It’s important to try and talk to your child about their self-injury, though it’s important to keep in mind they may feel ashamed about their behavior and get defensive. This is why it’s again vital not to judge them and listen slowly without interrupting.

Some good ways to approach the subject can include:

  • “I can imagine you would be scared and upset about all of this. I’m scared too, but together we can work this out.”
  • “The fact you are self-harming shows you are dealing with some difficult, upsetting emotions. I can imagine it’s uncomfortable for you that I’ve found this out and I’m not going to ask you lots of questions. I want to help you any way I can when you’re ready.”
  • “I hope it’s okay that I say this but I saw the scars on your arms. Can you talk to me about the times you’ve hurt yourself?”

How to Help Teens Build Coping Strategies

There are a number of steps that can be carried out to help your teen build up some coping strategies and reduce the chance of harming themselves again. One of these ways is to build their support system by creating a list of trusted adult family members and friends to reach out to when they feel like they need to talk and cope with their stress. This could include anyone from a grandparent, friend’s parent, neighbor, or aunt.

Helping your teen lay out activities they find helpful to distract themselves when they have the urge to hurt themselves is also helpful. Activities such as going on a walk, yoga, drawing, and calling a friend can help them express and process their emotions in a healthy way.

Finding Professional Support

Some people are able to overcome self-harm on their own, but due to the potentially lethal nature of the condition, it is highly recommended that they receive professional assistance. A mental health professional – such as a doctor, counselor, or psychologist – will be able to advise and assist each individual to find the treatment they need depending on their specific symptoms and experiences.

Counseling has been useful in helping teens realize the root of their self-harm and be able to identify triggers that cause them to do it. Here teens will also develop techniques to stop this behavior, learning to better understand strong emotions and find more effective ways to express them.

Seeing a professional about such a personal issue with a lot of shame attached to it can be difficult for anyone at any age. Young people who aren’t comfortable with this could also be directed to phone and online support services. Some of these organizations include:

  • Lifeline
  • Kids Helpline – Teens
  • eheadspace

Look After Yourself

Seeing a loved one dealing with self-harm can be extremely physically and emotionally draining for the people surrounding them also. It’s easy to forget about yourself during this period, letting the emotions and well-being of the person you care for completely take over your own health. However, it is still important to look after your own well-being for your own sake and your loved ones. This way, you can stay calm and consistent when times get tough.

In day-to-day life, it’s important you remember to do things for yourself alone for at least five minutes daily, such as reading a book, watching television, or knitting. Physical activity should not be forgotten also, as it stabilizes your own mental health, alongside boosting your energy.

Asking friends and family for help is a simple yet effective way to look after yourself. A call or text could be used to ask for some child support for a few hours, giving yourself an important time-out period. This space away from the situation allows you to process your own emotions and do things you enjoy.

Seeking mental health support in these situations can also be extremely helpful, whether this takes place in the form of chatting with friends, joining a support group, or speaking to a psychologist. Talking about your situation and getting advice from others can reduce any feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and generally overwhelming emotions.

Contact Us

At Clearfork, we understand how difficult it can be for you or your loved one to overcome self-harm. Our expert staff will be able to advise and assist on the best way to do this and create a personalized treatment program to best aid your journey to recovery. Please contact us today to learn more about our services.

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