This blog post is dedicated to a more serious issue that I have seen at work recently: self- harm in teens. While it is important to approach the topic of self-harm with sensitivity, understanding the common ways in which teens may engage in self-harming behaviors can help promote awareness and early intervention. It’s crucial to note that discussing specific methods of self-harm may be triggering for some individuals. However,I do believe that providing a general understanding can help identify signs and initiate conversations about seeking help.
Self-harm is a complex and alarming issue that affects many teenagers, and as an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve worked with teens who have engaged in self-harming behaviors. Perhaps you’ve experienced self-harm yourself, or someone in your home is hurting themselves. Or maybe all you know about self- harm is what you’ve seen in TV shows or movies. I want to help parents and caregivers better understand the causes of self-harm, explore some of the common signs and symptoms, and to assist further by reviewing different treatment options. It’s important to remember that self- harm is a serious issue that always requires an intentional response and support.
Self-harm refers to deliberate acts of inflicting pain or injury to oneself as a way to cope with difficult emotions, stress, and pressure. Self-harm can consist of cutting, scratching, burning, hitting or punching, hair pulling, biting, or ingesting harmful substances. In contrast to common misconceptions, self-harm is not a suicidal act but a harmful coping mechanism. Self -harm is not about a desire and intent to die, but a desire to end the extreme emotional distress that they don’t know how to deal with. Teens who engage in self-harm typically self-harm in response to the experience of intense emotional pain, and harming themselves provides temporary relief or a sense of control that they feel helps them.
Causes of Self-Harm in Teens:
While every individual’s experience is unique, several common factors may contribute to self-harming behaviors in teens:
- Emotional Distress: Teens may turn to self-harm as a way to manage overwhelming emotions such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. The physical pain provides a temporary distraction or release from emotional turmoil.
- Coping with Trauma: Teens who have experienced trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence, may resort to self-harm as an unhealthy coping strategy to deal with the pain and confusion.
- Difficulty Expressing Emotions: Some teenagers find it challenging to express their emotions openly and may struggle with identifying and communicating their feelings effectively. In such cases, self-harm can become a way to externalize or validate their emotional pain, as physical wounds may be easier to comprehend or share than overwhelming emotional experiences.
- Sensation-seeking or Self-punishment: In some cases, self-harm may be driven by a desire for sensation or a need for self-punishment. Teens may engage in self-harm to experience a physical sensation that momentarily distracts them from emotional pain or to punish themselves for perceived faults or failures.
- Peer Pressure and Social Influence: Some teens may engage in self-harm due to peer pressure or the influence of friends who engage in similar behaviors. It can create a sense of belonging or acceptance within a particular group.
- Mental Health Conditions: Self-harm often coexists with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, or eating disorders. These conditions can contribute to self-destructive behaviors as a means to alleviate distress.
Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm:
Recognizing the signs of self-harm is crucial for early intervention. Some common signs can include:
- Unexplained or frequent cuts, burns, or bruises on the body, particularly in hidden areas. Cuts can be small and in various states of healing. You may notice marks that they don’t have a reasonable explanation for.
- Wearing concealing clothing, even in warm weather, to hide self-inflicted injuries. You might see them in unseasonable long-sleeves, or avoidance of revealing clothing like swimwear.
- Finding sharp objects or tools, such as razors or needles, hidden in the teen’s belongings. Some teens use things they can find around the house like sharp tools used for crafting or art, or a regular razor used in shaving.
- Emotional instability, including extreme mood swings, anger outbursts, or withdrawal from social activities. You may notice unexpected crying, yelling, and see them isolating in their room.
- Difficulty handling stress or expressing emotions, often relying on self-harm as a coping mechanism. Perhaps they tend to dismiss or minimize stressful situations, or shut down when talking about something triggering.
Treatment Options for Self-Harm:
Effective treatment for self-harm involves a comprehensive approach that addresses both the underlying causes and the development of healthier coping strategies. Here are some common treatment options:
- Psychotherapy: Engaging in individual therapy with an experienced therapist, such as those at Outside the Norm Counseling, who can provide a safe space for teens to explore the root causes of their self-harm behaviors. Therapists employ evidence-based approaches like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), or Trauma-Focused Therapy to help teens develop healthier coping mechanisms and emotional regulation skills.
- Group Therapy: Participating in group therapy or support groups allows teens to connect with others facing similar struggles. It provides a sense of belonging, reduces isolation, and facilitates peer support and understanding.
- Family Involvement: Involving the family in the therapeutic process can be crucial for the teen’s recovery. Family therapy helps improve communication, strengthens family relationships, and creates a supportive environment for the teen.
- Collaborative Care: Collaborating with other healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists or pediatricians, can ensure a holistic approach to treatment. Medication may be considered if an underlying mental health condition is present and contributing to self-harming behaviors.
Remember, self-harm is a very serious concern that requires professional attention and support. At Outside the Norm Counseling in Temecula, California, our dedicated team of therapists can support you and your family in helping your teen overcome self-harming behaviors. By addressing the underlying causes, equipping teens with healthier coping mechanisms, and fostering a supportive therapeutic environment, we strive to guide them towards a path of healing and resilience.