Understanding Self-Mutilation (Part 1): 5 Questions Parents Ask about Their Teen’s Self-Harming BehaviorPosted August 2nd, 2012 in Anxiety, Children, Depression, Family Counseling, Teen by shoshana
This article is intended to serve as a resource for parents on the topic of self-mutilation, or self-harming behavior. My hope is that I can answer some basic questions about self-harm and provide some perspective to help you understand the issue. For many, this can be a scary and overwhelming topic. It is difficult to understand why someone would intentionally want to hurt him or herself – especially our own children, whom we so badly want to protect. Learning the basics is a great place to start the journey with your teen towards healing. As the motivation behind self-harm is deeply personal to the individual engaging in the behavior, I encourage you to resist the temptation to generalize this information to the teen in your life. Rather, I hope this article can serve as a basis for further inquiry, and a starting point for long-term care.
1. What is self-harm?
Self-harm is defined as “intentional acts of self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of motivation or degree of suicidal intent.” (Hawton, et al. 2007). A variety of terms are used to describe the behavior, including self-mutilation, self-injury, and cutting, which is considered to be the most common form of self-harm. Other forms of self-harm include slicing, burning, scalding, scratching, puncturing, hair-pulling, bone-breaking, and ingesting inedible or poisonous substances (Mental Health Foundation, 2006).
2. How common is self-harm?
As many as 17-28% of teens have intentionally harmed themselves (Rettner, 2010). Many youth who harm themselves are achievement-oriented and considered successful in their communities (Mental Health Foundation, 2006). Self-harm is often difficult to identify because most teens attempt to hide the behavior and resultant injuries. Some researchers predict that self-harm is more common among females, while others find that it is more even between genders. However, trends show that females are more likely to use cutting, while males are more likely to use burning to harm themselves (Rettner, 2010). Although self-harm may appear to be relatively common among young people, that does not make it normal. I want to make this distinction because normal implies that something is acceptable, insignificant, or not worth discussing. On the contrary, self-harming behavior has a number of adverse effects socially, emotionally, and physically; and its prevalence begs our attention.
Self-harm is a symptom of an unbearable emotional pain that the injurer does not know how to express, relieve, or resolve any other way. The injury literally feels better than the emotional pain he or she is experiencing. It brings a temporary feeling of relief that reinforces the behavior, making it rather addictive. Though the motivation for self-harm is very personal, people who self-injure often express similar themes. Most say they self-injure to escape from a terrible state of mind, while others say they do it to punish themselves, to express desperation, or to seek attention (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010).
Two common misconceptions about the cause of self-harm are 1) that most teens who harm themselves are “just trying to get attention;” and 2) that if someone self-harms, it means they are suicidal. Regarding the first misconception, attention-seeking behavior is probably the least common explanation for self-injury; but even if someone does self-harm to seek attention, that does not make it any less damaging or worthy of response. As for the second misconception, suicidality and self-harm are two separate issues with different warning signs and motivations, although they do sometimes co-occur. Self- harm is often present with little to no suicide intent. Some teens say they self-harm because they are trying to stay alive (Mental Health Foundation, 2006), as it provides temporary relief and gives them a sense of being in control. However, if you are concerned that your teen may have suicidal thoughts, it is important that you seek the guidance of a professional counselor or psychologist, as it is a very serious issue.
4. What are the signs of self-harm?
If you are concerned that your teen may be self-harming, consider the following warning signs (Helpguide.org):
• Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises, or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest.
• Blood stains on clothing, towels, or bedding; blood-soaked tissues.
• Sharp objects or cutting instruments, such as razors, knives, needles, glass shards, or bottle caps, in the person’s belongings.
• Frequent “accidents.” Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps, in order to explain away injuries.
• Covering up. A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
• Needing to be alone for long periods of time, especially in the bedroom or bathroom.
• Isolation and irritability.
The presence of these signs may indicate that your teen needs professional treatment for self-harming behavior.
Parents often wonder what they could have done differently to prevent their teen from self-harming. Seeing one’s own children make choices that hurt them can bring up strong feelings of inadequacy in a parent. Those are powerful feelings that are worth exploring with a trusted friend or counselor; but keep in mind that placing blame on yourself, on your teen, or elsewhere, will not help anyone get better. Rather than dwelling on the past, focus on the future. The good news is that you can play a significant role in helping your teen learn healthier ways of responding to emotions. For more information, be on the lookout for Part 2 of this article, which addresses how parents can help their teens who self-harm.
How can Christian Counseling help?
I hope you found this article helpful, and that it has sparked further questions and thoughts for you. If you believe your teen needs help for self-harming behavior, consider meeting with a Christian counselor. The combination of your expertise on your teen, along with a professional counselor’s expertise on the psychological issues that adolescents face, can provide a dynamic support system for your teen.
Cutting and Self-harm: Self-injury Help, Support, and Treatment. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/self_injury.htm
Hawton, K., Casey, D., Bale, E., et al. (2007). Deliberate Self-Harm in Oxford. The University of Oxford, Centre for Suicide Research.
Rettner, R. (12 September, 2010). Why do Teens Hurt Themselves? The Science of Self-injury. http://www.livescience.com/11043-teens-hurt-science-injury.html
Self-harm, Suicide, and Risk: Helping People Who Self-harm (June, 2010). College Report CR158. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.
The Truth about Self-harm for Young People and Their Friends and Families (2006). London: Mental Health Foundation.
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