Deliberate self-injury (often known as self harm or cutting) is one of our most common calls on the hotline and a huge worry for parents. Statistics say 1 in 12 teens deliberately hurt themselves, but I believe that statistic is much higher. There is great shame associated with hurting oneself, so many will not disclose because of this shame.
Many teens do not disclose their self-injurious behaviors until after months of therapy when they final feel safe. On the hotline, we often encounter teens who haven’t told anyone. There are also those who have told and been further shamed, so have vowed to suffer in private again.
So, why do teens deliberately hurt themselves? Generally, they self injure because they are dealing with intense emotional pain. Hurting themselves is the only way they can deal with the pain. It sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but they find the act of cutting a “release” of that pain. They can’t express it verbally, so they express it visually or physically. Usually, they feel better right after they cut, but then that feeling is followed by intense guilt or shame, which may lead them to do it again. Self-injury can become addictive to those teens who find themselves frequently in the throes of anxiety and stress.
A teen who is deliberately engaging in self-injury is always cause for concern. However, a teen who self-injures is NOT necessarily suicidal. Often, the self injury is a coping mechanism for the teen. It’s their way to get through the day. It often keeps them from being suicidal. I’ve heard teens say that they didn’t become suicidal until cutting “stopped working” for them. Like any other coping mechanism, self injury can not be taken away without a replacement behavior or plan in place.
So what can you do if you find your teen is self-harming?
• Remain calm. Their fear of your overreaction or anger may be why they haven’t talked to you about their pain.
• Listen (see what’s going on with them)
• Don’t rush into trying to fix the situation
• Don’t demand they stop immediately or punish them. They are already punishing themselves, and can’t stop without another mechanism in place.
• Assess if medical attention is necessary
• Be part of their support system
• Seek out professional help
We know that positive family and peer relationships are a buffer to self-injury, so remember you have more influence than you think!
TEEN LINE is always available as a resource to your teen, and we have a great brochure on self-injury on our website. https://teenlineonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/TL-Self-Injury-brochure.pdf.
You can also check out http://www.adolescentselfinjuryfoundation.com/.