Recent studies in the US show that one-third to one-half of teenagers have engaged in some type of self harming behavior.
What is self harm?
Non-suicidal self injury, or “self harm” is the act of deliberately causing harm to one’s body through cutting, burning, or other means. The injuries are typically minor, can leave scars, and are usually not life-threatening. Recent studies in the US show that one-third to one-half of teenagers have engaged in some type of self harming behavior.
Why do people self harm? Is there treatment for self harm?
Self-harm is usually not a suicide attempt. People who self harm are often feeling overwhelmed and in pain, and hurting themselves often feels like the only thing they can do in that moment to make the emotional pain go away. Unfortunately, the release of emotion that self harm offers is short lived and usually immediately followed by feelings of guilt and shame. This can create a cycle of self harm: emotional pain/shame -> overwhelm -> self harm -> short term release/relief -> feelings of guilt/shame.
Counselling, especially with a counsellor experienced in working with people who self harm, can help to identify triggers, work through pain, and develop alternative coping skills. Medication may also be helpful in helping to manage some of the intense emotion and underlying distress that is leading to the self harming behavior.
Is my teen self-harming?
Signs and symptoms of potential self harm can include:
What should I do?
If you know or suspect that your child or teen is self harming, the first thing that you need to do is to notice your own reaction. What are you feeling right now? Are you feeling panicked? Angry? Sad? Numb? Confused? It is so important to notice and acknowledge your own reaction because your teen is already likely overwhelmed and feeling shame. Adding your panic, anger or fear to this mix will only amplify the emotions, and not help to ease them. Once you have noticed and named your reaction, sit with it for a moment and decide what you need to move through this reaction and into a place where you can be a support for your teenager. Managing your own emotions in the face of your teen self harming is incredibly hard work. I would encourage you to reach out for support to a counsellor or a family doctor if you are feeling overwhelmed. Then, once you feel more grounded, talk to your teen.
Tips for talking to your teen about self harm:
When is self harm an emergency?
If you believe the self harm injury is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or your nearest emergency number immediately. Signs of potentially life-threatening injuries can include bleeding that spurts or won’t stop, injuries to the face or throat, or burns that are near major blood vessels.
 Nonsuicidal self-injury among "privileged" youths: longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches to developmental process.
Yates TM, Tracy AJ, Luthar SS
J Consult Clin Psychol. 2008 Feb; 76(1):52-62.
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