Feeling Helpless: When Your Teen Engages in Self-Harm
To make parents aware of self-injurious behavior, the film and television media have focused on storylines of teenage self-harm. Unfortunately, some children may view self-injury as a way to cope with the frustrations they feel at home or school.
If you catch your child hurting himself or you suspect your teen may be engaging in the behavior, you might feel shocked, angry, confused, or helpless. These are all common reactions to knowing a loved one is hurting – emotionally and physically.
There are ways you can help your teen get through this season of hurt once you are aware of the types of self-harm and can recognize the signs.
Why Would Someone Choose to Self-Harm?
Many people can’t fathom why a person would choose to harm themselves; however, there are several reasons why someone engages in the behavior. Sometimes they are looking for an outlet.
It could be that they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed over a situation. These emotions can leave a person feeling numb, and yet the action of self-harming releases endorphins, providing temporary relief.
Children who are victims of abuse, trauma, or neglect may react with self-injurious behaviors. These teens may feel shame or guilt as a result of the event(s) and seek solace. The act may distract them from the memories and pain, although temporarily.
By hurting themselves, they may feel like they are in control of this aspect of their lives. They are not trying to commit suicide; they only want to decrease the amount of emotional pain in their life.
Certain mental health conditions can also lead to self-injury. The act is sometimes seen with eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, or substance abuse.
Other reasons include:
- Feeling rejection or abandonment
- Feeling lonely or misunderstood
- Feeling like they are not good enough or displaying low self-esteem
- Feeling overwhelmed or as if they cannot do something perfectly
At times, these feelings may be self-induced. A teen may feel as if they cannot meet their parents’ or school administrators’ expectations (even if this is not a true expectation), so they become overwhelmed with the anxiety from their own perfectionism. The teen may then cut or burn themselves to try to relieve the emotional panic.
Types of Self-Harm
Arguably, the most common form of self-harm is cutting and is what we think of when we hear the term. Those that practice it tend to begin in the early teen years, between 12 and 14. Some adults who seek treatment for cutting started as teens, and the practice became a habit.
The cuts are rarely deep, with some appearing as scratches. The teen may use a sharp razor blade or something easier for them to obtain, such as a pen cap. The cuts are typically in a straight line (linear) and multiple lines are parallel to each other. Some teens will cut words into their skin. These are most likely found on their arms or legs.
Other teens may use burning or branding as a method of self-harm. The child may use a lighter or candle to sear the skin on their arms, legs, or torso. Although some adults practice branding with a professional, teens may attempt to brand themselves with hot metal. Both practices can leave scars. Children who use this method of self-injurious behavior will keep their skin covered even during the hot summer months.
Picking at their skin or pulling their own hair are both common methods. Both behaviors become habits that the child may be unaware they are doing in front of people. A teen may pull at their skin or pick at a sore incessantly until it bleeds.
If they often have dry lips, they may pick at their lips until they’ve removed a layer or two of the skin. Once again, like with skin picking, it seems that the goal is to produce the visual result of blood.
Children that pull their hair may begin to leave bald spots at the crown, around the face, or eyebrows. It is not uncommon for a teen to pull hair from other places as well including their eyelashes and the pubic area. Researchers have classified the act of impulsive hair pulling, known as trichotillomania, as behavior from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Although the goal is not to kill themselves, self-injurious behavior can lead to fatal injuries. Some teens hit themselves with lethal weapons such as a hammer. They may bang their head on a wall until they bleed. These behaviors are life-threatening for the child.
Signs of Self-Injury
You will want to make yourself aware of the signs of self-injury, especially if you suspect your child may have resorted to the worrisome behavior. Some self-harm behaviors are easy to identify such as hair pulling or picking their skin in front of others subconsciously.
Other signs include:
- Short, linear cuts or scars on the child’s arms, legs, or torso
- Unexplained cuts, scars, or burns on the child’s body
- Covering their arms and legs completely even in hot weather
- Wounds on their arms and legs in a discernable pattern
- Behavioral changes, including mood swings
- Problems with their close friendships or family relationships
A child may also make remarks regarding their self-esteem. They may refer to themselves as dumb, useless, or worthless. Teenage girls who compare themselves to celebrities in the media may develop low self-worth and eating disorders. Increasingly, boys have begun this comparison game as well. Comparison is the thief of joy and it can lead to some terrible habits and strongholds.
How to Help Your Teen
If you are concerned that your teenage son or daughter is self-harming in any way, try to keep an open mind. Your reaction, however worrisome their behavior is, will have a direct impact on your child. Encourage your child to open up to you and tell you what it is that is bothering them (if they can).
If possible, spend quality time with them and listen to their ideas, fears, or struggles. Sometimes just being a sounding board is enough to put a child’s mind at ease. Recruiting your child’s most supportive friend is helpful in rebuilding those relationships that may have fallen by the wayside.
If your child is feeling overwhelmed and anxious with school responsibilities, household duties, extracurricular activities, and an after-school job, consider decreasing their responsibilities for a while. As good as these things may look on a college application or resume, your teen’s mental health is of greater priority, not their community service hours.
You will need to remember that if the teen has been engaging in self-injurious behaviors for a while, they may have developed a habit. This will take time to break and some habits are more of a threat than others.
Psychotherapy, also referred to as talk therapy, is beneficial for not only getting to the root of the problem but providing methods to help your child overcome the behavior. Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can teach your child to identify those negative thoughts and their corresponding emotions. When your child can successfully “feel” the impulse, they can replace the behavior with a new action.
A therapist that specializes in adolescents is aware of the frustrations and struggles teenagers face daily. They may recommend that your child attend one-on-one sessions and family or group sessions. These sessions will help your child work on interpersonal skills. Support groups are also a great way to introduce your teen to others overcoming the same behaviors.
Your child’s primary physician, pediatrician, or psychiatrist may also prescribe medication to help with some of the other symptoms. These can include prescription medications for anxiety, depression, and/or insomnia.
In some cases, self-injury is a symptom of a more severe mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia. Only a licensed mental health professional can make that diagnosis, but your teen may need temporary hospitalization if their behavior is life-threatening.
Another great resource for teens is a faith-based counseling service. Your child will learn how to give their anxieties to God, calm their racing minds with prayer, and become the child of God they were created to be.
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