Parenting 101: How to help teens who self-injure

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Current estimates are that one in five adolescents engage in self-injury. These numbers do not just include young people already identified as needing psychological help. Rather, they reflect ordinary youth from average American high schools and include adolescents of all races, ethnicities and economic classes. Unfortunately, it seems non-suicidal self-injury is a phenomenon on the rise. Therefore, as a parent or elder wise person, it is important to inform yourself about self-injury so you can offer understanding and help if the situation arises.

Superficial to moderate self-injury is the most common type young people engage in. It usually begins in adolescence and refers to acts such as skin scratching, hair pulling and nail biting. However disturbing even a single incident of self-injury may be, especially to a parent, a majority of those who self-harm simply stop doing it within a period of six months or so. For those lucky individuals, it does not become a primary coping mechanism, although the long-term susceptibility of even these casual cutters to other self-destructive behaviors is a matter of concern.

Children’s emotional response systems can be thrown off kilter by a wide range of painful experiences. Confusing and overwhelming feelings experienced as a result of adoption or abandonment, natural disasters, deaths in the family, serious illness or disability, witnessing or being the victim of an accident or violent crime – any of these can result in emotional stress that leads to self-injury. Other societal stressors, such as school bullying, identity struggles, perfectionism and body-image issues, have also been linked to self-injury.

Another profile of self-injurers shows that they were not allowed to have or to express their own feelings – especially anger. Instead, they were forced to carry the feelings of their parents and grew up feeling responsible for their anger, frustration and unhappiness. They were expected to fill their parents’ need for love and gratification rather than their own.

When a child’s feelings and perceptions are actively denied or minimized by her parents, her ability to develop a language of feelings is stunted, and she is left with a mute hopelessness about the possibility of communicating in a way that will help her to get her critical needs met. Emotions become so dammed up that sadness seems annihilating and rage feels murderous. Words take on terrifying proportions because they are both too powerful and seem completely useless.

It’s at that moment when a young person is likely to injure himself. He doesn’t know how to make sense of what happened, cannot put the difficult feelings he experienced into words, doesn’t know how to assert his personal needs or doesn’t feel he is in a safe place to do so. Whatever it was, instead of discharging his pent-up emotions and unexpressed thoughts verbally, he does it physically by hurting himself.

It is important to note that the type of controlled self-injury being discussed here is very different from suicide attempts. Rather than the desire to end it all, it is actually a strangely effective coping mechanism that releases some of the overwhelming feelings of tension and anxiety the teen might be feeling. Self-injury grounds and reintegrates him. It enables him to break out of what can be numbing states of dissociation in which he feels he is slipping into nothingness.

Though the tendency may pass, most young people who harm themselves need help to learn other ways to communicate the distress they are experiencing. Fortunately, if they would like help, a lot of knowledge and information is available through self-help books and the internet. There are also well-trained psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors available if more hands-on help is needed. Whatever help the young person decides they will need to stop injuring themselves, your understanding and support will be essential. Being informed and open to listening will be your first steps.

A good book to read about self-injury is “A Bright Red Scream” by Marilee Strong.

Reach Shanti at (575) 779-4627 or shanti@barbaraujones.com.

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