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Teen Self-Harm: March is Self-Injury Awareness Month

March is Self-Injury Awareness Month, and teen self-harm has never been as big a problem as it is today. So many teenagers struggle with the compulsion to hurt themselves in some way, and sadly, many parents are completely unaware of it. The latest statistics tell us that:

  • 1 in 7 males and 1 in 5 females self-harm every year.
  • 90% of people who self-harm start when they are teenagers or pre-teens.
  • Close to 50% of people who self-harm have endured some type of sexual abuse.
  • 60% of those who engage in this behavior are females.
  • Around half of those who start self-harming will do so around the age of 14 and continue into their 20s.
  • A significant number of people who self-harm learn how to do it from websites that teach it.
  • Every year, around 2 million cases of self-harm are reported in the United States.

Why do teens self-harm? What are the signs of self-injurious behavior and how can parents help? That is what we would like to discuss here today.

Why do Teens Self-Harm?

Anecdotal reports from counselors reveal that the number of teens who are self-harming has increased. These young people are not suicidal; in fact, overall, they do not want to die. They only want to inflict harm on themselves, which is a behavior called non-suicidal self-injury.

A study on the mental health of college students confirms these findings. A one university, the rate of self-harming behaviors doubled between 1997 and 2007. But the question is, why do they do it?

As a Way to Cope

Janis Whitlock is a researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She says, “The vast majority of people who report non-suicidal self-injury aren’t to trying to end their life, they’re trying to cope with life. It’s absolutely the opposite of what suicide is.” For most teens who self-injure, it is a way for them to cope with their negative emotions, and the majority of them say it works. For them, self-harming has become a way for them to experience calmness and relief from their problems. The behavior is actually quite similar to the way people use drugs, alcohol, food or sex to feel better short-term.

As a Form of Punishment

There are also some teens who may use self-harm as a way to punish themselves. Many teens experience extreme guilt or shame, and they may feel that they deserve to feel physical pain as well.


Because of a Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorder

The vast majority of teens who self-harm are suffering from some type of mental health problems. The DSM IV-TR indicates that self-injurious behavior is a symptom of borderline personality disorder. But we also know that these behaviors are not uncommon with other types of mental illness, such as:

  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Conduct and oppositional disorders

Types of Self-Mutilating Behaviors

There are several types of self-injurious behaviors that teens may participate in. They include:

  • Scratching or pinching themselves.
  • Hitting objects until there is bruising or bleeding.
  • Cutting themselves.
  • Punching themselves.
  • Ripping or tearing their skin.
  • Carving symbols into their skin.
  • Picking at scabs, hindering the healing process.
  • Burning themselves.
  • Pulling their own hair.
  • Rubbing sharp objects (like glass, for example) into the skin.

In one survey, 70% of the teens who self-harmed used more than one of the above methods. Most of them reported using as many as four.

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Understanding the Self-Harming Brain

Although self-injury causes harm to the body’s tissues, the concern should be about more than these superficial marks. They are only a symptom of a deeper problem that the teen is wrestling with. At one point, it was believed that stress was the main factor behind self-harming behaviors. But when saliva tests were done to check cortisol levels (the stress hormone), these teens were found to have lower levels than normal. Interestingly enough, their pain tolerance tended to be higher than that of the average person. The presence of pain tends to calm teens who self-harm. Any anger, sadness or frustration they were experiencing disappears when they are hurting themselves. Instead, they feel relief, and the pain results in happiness, satisfaction, and contentedness. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes the rawest, reactive feelings. Self-harmers may participate in these activities because for them, pain lowers the activity in this part of the brain.

Information for Teens

If you are a teenager who self-harms, it may seem to be the only way to escape from your problems or difficult emotions. Maybe it is a behavior that only gets triggered when something bad happens, such as the loss of a loved one or a relationship. It is also possible that you are suffering from depression, anxiety or another mental health issue. Self-harm can be habit-forming. That means that even if you only do it once, it may be very tempting to do it again. The more you do it, the more you may feel the need to do it because you like the results you get from it. Once hurting yourself becomes compulsive, it can be very difficult for you to stop. It may be something that you feel in control of in the beginning, but after some time has passed, it will control you. The best thing for you to do is to talk with your parents about your self-harming behaviors. This may not be an easy conversation for you to have with them, but it is better to get it out into the open. Otherwise, you may embark on a dangerous cycle of self-injury that could last until well into your adult years. Your parents can get you the help you need to stop.

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Information for Parents

As a parent, if you think your teen is self-harming, there is so much you can do to help them. For example:

  • Come to terms with your own emotions. You are likely to experience anger, shock, sadness or disappointment once you learn your teen has been self-harming. Find a healthy way to express those feelings so that you can be there for your teen.
  • Learn about self-harm. Find out why teens do it and why they cannot stop once they start.
  • Talk with your child about their behaviors. Let them know you are there for them and that you want to help.
  • Be persistent, but do not push your teen. They may not be open to talking with you as much as you would like. But keep reminding them that they are not alone.
  • Get them professional help. This problem is likely much too big for you to handle on your own. Therapy gives them a place where they may feel safer working through these issues.

Signs a Teen May be Self-Harming

Teens can often hide their self-harming behaviors and parents need to know what to look for. Some of the signs of self-injury include:

  • Having visible marks from cutting or scratching.
  • Being unable to explain how an injury happened.
  • Feelings of fascination with self-harm.
  • Covering up their skin in warmer weather, wearing band-aids or wraps to hide injuries.
  • Increasing signs of anxiety or depression.
  • Becoming isolated from family or friends.

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Our Imagine Day Treatment Program for Teens

Imagine by Northpoint is our teen mental health program, and we work with young people between the ages of 12 and 17. We are located in Nampa, Idaho, and many of the teenagers we work with struggle with self-harming behaviors. Teens may find it nearly impossible to stop self-harming behaviors on their own because of their compulsive nature. Therapy can provide them with the support they need and give them insight into what they are doing. We offer many different types of therapy at Imagine by Northpoint. We work with teens as well as with the family to help bring about the healing that is so desperately needed in these young people’s lives. Do you have questions about teen self-harm, or would you like to talk with one of our staff about your son or daughter? Please contact us.