Identifying & Helping Self-Harm in Teens

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Kelly discusses about self-harm among teens
Kelly discusses about self-harm among teens

Behaviors that result in either physical or psychological injury to oneself can be described as self-harm. It has always been prevalent among teenagers, with cutting and bruising oneself being the most common examples. Self-harm is most commonly seen as a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder. Still, it could be a transdiagnostic marker of psychopathology and suicide risk, according to an article published in the European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal. 

The article states that self-harm is divided into two essential categories. These include nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) and suicidal behavior. The worldwide prevalence of self-harm among adolescents is a staggering 16.9%. The Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine War, and a host of other reasons may have contributed to the increase in the prevalence of self-harm. In most self-harm cases are intricately linked to past and present traumatic incidents. 

What is self-harming?

Self-harm refers to the intentional act of causing physical pain to oneself as a way of coping with emotional distress, pain, or negative feelings. This self-harm in teens behavior often involves cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, or other methods that result in pain or injury when people self harm themselves.

People who engage in physical activity of self-harm may do so as a means of expressing emotional pain that they find difficult to communicate verbally, seeking temporary relief from overwhelming emotions, or regaining a sense of control over their feelings.

It’s important to note that self-injure is not a healthy or productive way of dealing with emotional struggles. It can lead to physical and serious injuries, psychological complications, and addressing the underlying issues to stop self harming and is crucial for effective recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, seeking professional help from mental health experts, therapists, or counselors is recommended to develop healthier coping strategies and address the root causes of distress.

What leads some teens to engage in self injury?

Several factors can contribute to higher risk of teens engaging in self-harm. Adolescence is a period of intense emotional and psychological development, and some teens may resort to self-harm as a coping mechanism for various reasons. These can include overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, or anxiety that they struggle to express or manage verbally. Peer pressure, social isolation, academic stress, family conflicts, and traumatic experiences can also contribute to the urge to self-harm.

Additionally, a lack of healthy coping skills and emotional regulation strategies can push teens towards self-harm as a way to temporarily alleviate emotional pain.

Seeing self-harm depicted in media or learning about it from peers can normalize the behavior as a coping mechanism. However, it’s important to understand that self-harm is a sign of emotional distress or underlying mental health condition, and addressing the underlying causes of self harms, through open communication, support from family and friends, and professional mental health intervention is essential in helping teens develop healthier ways to manage their emotions.

How can parents respond to self harm teens?

If a parent discovers that their teen is engaging in self-harm, a supportive stay calm and understanding response is crucial. First, approach your teen with empathy and without judgment. Listen actively, giving them the space to express their feelings strong emotions and experiences.

Show that you care and want to understand their struggles.

Encourage open communication about their emotions and stressors. Offer reassurance that seeking help is a positive step and doesn’t reflect weakness. Explore professional options like therapists, counselors, or mental health experts who specialize in working with teens.

Create a safe home environment where your teen feels comfortable discussing their emotions. Collaborate on developing healthier coping mechanisms and self injury and strategies. Avoid blaming or punishing them for their self-harm, as this could worsen their emotional state. Regular check-ins and ongoing support can make a significant difference in helping your teen overcome self-harm and have healthy ways to navigate their emotional challenges.

To understand self-harm among teens with more clarity, we contacted Kelly Kellerman at Thriveworks. 

Thriveworks is a mental health company with over 340 clinics nationwide. The firm also offers online services. We spoke to Kelly Kellerman, Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Thriveworks in Oakland. Kelly specializes in generalized mental health conditions, trauma and PTSD, and has been trained in trauma-informed care.

1. What problems/challenges are you seeing today with teens? 

I have witnessed increased self-harm or self-injury, which means hurting oneself on purpose. It can include cutting, scratching the skin with a paperclip or a sharp object, skin picking, and hitting oneself. It can also include participating in high-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol use and practicing unsafe sex

A new and rising trend is digital self-harm which focuses on emotional harm by a teen anonymously posting hurtful comments about themselves online. Please note most teens who self-harm are not necessarily attempting suicide attempt.

2. In what areas are these challenges evident? 

These challenges are evident when teenagers experience difficult emotions like stress, anger, depression, and anxiety. Other risk factors for self harming may include a history of trauma, neglect, or abuse by family members. 

Those who self-harm may be trying to release emotional pain or cope with painful emotions by feeling numb because they don’t know other coping skills. It can be a way to communicate a need for help when they cannot do so with words.

3. Before the pandemic, what were the most common challenges you faced with teens? 

Self-harm has been a typical challenge with teens long before the pandemic. Being disconnected from friends and pushed further toward technology, phone, and online usage have increased feelings of lack of emotional connection. 

The more time teens spend on their phones and social media, the more they compare themselves with others. This can make a teen feel overwhelmed and unprepared to manage that stress. 

4. What advice would you offer to parents with post-pandemic teen problems? 

I urge them to speak to teens with love and compassion without panicking. Parents can discuss their observations with their teens and say, “You must be struggling right now. I am here for you.” Validating that all feelings are ok is very important to young people. 

I would encourage them to request their teens share their problems with them by saying, “Let me know what you have been thinking about and what you are feeling.”

One does not have to be a former school counselor or therapist to be a supportive caregiver. Parents must also offer to get them help so teens can learn new coping skills. In addition, they can talk and can share healthy coping skills that have worked for them.

5. What is the best therapy teens can get? 

Talk therapy is a standard treatment for self-harming behavior. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help teens learn that thoughts and feelings are related. CBT teaches them how to challenge and replace negative thoughts and dysfunctional beliefs. In other words, instead of using maladaptive thinking patterns repeatedly, they can learn another way of looking at things.

Kids today have access to technology, which provides instant gratification. As a result, teenagers don’t have a road map to manage discomfort without falling back upon instant gratification. A therapist can teach teens skills like mindfulness, grounding, breathing exercises, self-care/self-soothing, and acceptance to manage distress instead of avoiding it.

Improving self-esteem is also a part of the treatment. Parents can also benefit from family therapy, and need connections, so they don’t feel alone.

Seek help for self-harm before it is too late

Although self-harm and self-injurious behavior may not necessarily lead to suicide attempts, they are serious indications of an underlying mental health disorder. In addition to Borderline Personality Disorder, self-harm can result from past and ongoing trauma, a way to seek help, and communicate distress when everything else fails. 

If you notice that your teen has been engaging in different self-injurious behavior, getting them the support they need is essential. Try to find a trauma-oriented therapist with experience in working with adolescents who harm themselves. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other forms of talk therapy can reduce the frequency of self-injurious behaviors

As Kelly Kellerman rightly says, parents must take an active role in helping their teens seek treatment for self-harm.

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