Disclaimer: This article contains information about self harm that may be triggering to some readers. Proceed with caution.
Self harm is a difficult and delicate topic to talk about, but it quietly impacts approximately 10% of young people and can even be an early predictor of suicide — so we need to discuss it, especially if you are a parent, guardian, or teacher. This statistic doesn’t seem like much until you think about it this way: one in every 10 teens you meet is self harming. This number has only increased with the isolation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here, we provide you with an understanding of what self harm is, why people do it, what it looks like, how to recognize it, and how you can be an ally to those who feel they have nowhere else to turn.
If you yourself are struggling with self harm, text HOME to 741741 for free help from crisistextline.org.
What Is Self Harm and Why Do Young People Do It?
Why do people self harm? The answer to this is complex. Self harm is a non-verbal way of expressing deeply negative emotions. Some attribute it to attention seeking and experimental teenage behavior, but it’s much worse than that and should always be taken seriously. Those who are self harming are desperate for relief from distress and are having a hard time speaking up to get help.
Teenagers who are harming themselves may be doing it because they:
- Lack emotional connection to their family members
- Want to fit in with a group that prides itself on self harm
- Have a hard time coping with bullying, trauma, or an existing mental health challenge
- Feel ignored and crave attention from their parents
- Have a hard time verbalizing their emotions
- Want to turn their intangible feelings into something physical
- Feel the need to punish themselves for what’s happened to them
- Are suicidal but know they can’t act on it
- Want to feel in control after feeling like they’ve lost it
- Choose to spare their loved ones from feeling their emotional pain
- Don’t have friends at school and feel alone
- Struggle to manage their stress at school
- Feel overloaded after taking on more than they can handle
- Have feelings that they can’t meet societal expectations of how they should act and look
- Spend too much time on screens hearing messages on social media about how they need more money, more makeup, nicer clothes, better hair, and better bodies to be liked
These reasons are just the tip of the iceberg. As with depression and substance abuse, there’s no single reason for self harm. However, the psychology of self harm shows that the act of hurting oneself to release emotion produces endorphins and leaves the individual with a pleasurable sensation, helping them numb negative thoughts and achieve a temporary high.
Types of Self Harm and How to Spot the Warning Signs
Warning: If you are in a vulnerable state of mind, reading about methods of self harm is not advised. Please do not proceed if you are prone to self harm.
Self harm can take many different forms. Some of the most common ways that people engage in this behavior include (but are not limited to):
- Burning or cutting their skin
- Ingesting chemicals or sharp objects
- Pulling out their hairs
- Hitting themselves
- Abusing drugs or alcohol
- Starving themselves or binge eating
- Exercising themselves to exhaustion
Keep in mind that self-harming teens will usually try to hide this behavior out of shame or fear of discussing the root cause, so it may not be immediately noticeable if your child starts hurting themself.
If you want to learn how to stop self harming, call this self-harm hotline: 800-950-NAMI
As a parent or guardian, you’re with your child every day. You know their personality, their routine, and their habits, so you’ll notice when something changes. Observe whether they start spending lots of time alone behind closed doors. Have they withdrawn and stopped speaking to you and the rest of the family? Have they begun to wear clothing that covers most of their body? These are good indicators that self harm may be taking place.
Watch also for:
- Weight fluctuation
- A change in eating habits or eating in private
- Lack of interest in hobbies, activities, or anything else
- Depressed mood
- Low motivation
- Self-loathing and negativity
- The presence of drugs or alcohol in their bedroom or personal belongings
- New and unexplained burns, cuts, or bruises around the arms, legs, or chest area
If you notice these signs in your child, it’s okay to feel angry, hurt, helpless, or even responsible for it. However, you should not take any immediate or drastic action. It’s not too late to help them out of these behaviors, and the wrong actions may push your teen further into their self-harming habits. You need to approach the situation in the proper manner.
How to Help Your Self-Harming Teen
The most important thing to be aware of when approaching your child about self harm is that your attitude will make or break the situation. When you come to them, don’t accuse them of seeking attention or judge them for what they’ve done. If you try to force them to change, they will likely resist it. Approach them from a place of compassion, love, and understanding. If you let on that you are scared or worried about them, they may feel guilty for causing you pain and continue to punish themself in secret.
Instead, simply let your child know that you’re there for them and that you want to help them find support. Remind them of why they are special to you, that you love them, and that you can help them identify better alternatives to self harming. Acknowledge that you know their situation is difficult and encourage them to open up about why they started the habit in the first place without reacting with shock or disgust. It’s important for this conversation to be positive to foster hope in the teen that they can recover.
Make Choose Mental Health Your Partner in Recovery
Choose Mental Health is acutely aware of how many teens out there are struggling with self harm and simply lack the resources and support network to get the help they need. We’re here to fill that gap and provide your child with affordable help and you with peace of mind. Get in touch with us today to find out what we can do for your family.