Self-harm, also known as self-injuring or self-mutilation, is a way of expressing and dealing with deep distress and emotional pain. As counterintuitive as it may sound, self-injuring can actually make someone feel better, even if only briefly. In fact, a person who self-harms may feel like they have no choice. Injuring themselves is the only way they know how to cope with feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage.
Most teens who self-injure try to keep what they’re doing a secret. They may feel ashamed or think no one will understand. Because cutting and other means of self-harm tend to be taboo subjects, parents, other family members and friends may have some serious misconceptions about the motivations and state of mind behind self-injuring.
Myth: Teens who self-injure are trying to get attention.
Fact: Teens who self-harm generally do so in secret. They aren’t trying to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. In fact, shame and fear can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help.
Myth: Teens who self-injure are crazy and/or dangerous.
Fact: It is true many teens that self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression or a previous trauma— just like a lot of their peers. Unlike many some of their peers, however, they do not have a healthy way of processing these emotions and events. Self-injury is how they cope. Labeling them crazy or dangerous is inaccurate and could discourage them from seeking help.
Myth: Teens who self-injure want to die.
Fact: Self-injurers usually do not want to die. When they self-harm, they are simply trying to cope with their pain in the only way they know how. Unfortunately, in the long-term, teens who self-injure have a much higher risk of suicide.
Myth: If the wounds aren’t bad, it’s not that serious.
Fact: The severity of a teen’s wounds has very little to do with how much he or she may be suffering. Don’t assume because the wounds or injuries are minor, there’s nothing to worry about.
Clothing and accessories can cover up a lot of the wounds from self-harming. The turmoil of emotions are the inside can be masked with a calm exterior and disposition. Both of things can make it very difficult to know if a teen is self-injuring. and inner turmoil can be covered up by a seemingly calm disposition, self-injury can be hard to detect. There are red flags you can look for:
• Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises, or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest.
• Blood stains on clothing, towels, or bedding; blood-soaked tissues.
• Sharp objects or cutting instruments, such as razors, knives, needles, glass shards, or bottle caps in a teen’s possession.
• Frequent “accidents.” Teens that self-harm may use clumsiness as way to explain away injuries. You may hear everything from “I fell” to “My cat scratched me.”
• A teen who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
• Needing to be alone for long periods of time, especially in the bedroom or bathroom.
If you suspect your teen is self-harming, it is imperative you seek professional help. Here are a few additional things to keep in mind as you go through the process of helping your teen get better.
• Deal with your own feelings first. You may feel shocked, confused, or even disgusted by self-harming behaviors—and guilty about admitting these feelings. As a parent, you may feel guilty or sadden by your teen’s behavior. These emotions need to be dealt with before confronting your teen. You must Acknowledging your feelings is an important first step toward helping your loved one.
• Learn about the issue. The best way to deal with your feelings and prepare yourself to help your teen is learn more about the methods and motivations associated with self-harming. The more knowledge you have, the more comfortable you will be talking with your teen.
• Try not to be judgmental. Chances are, your teen already feels guilty and ashamed. Additional harsh comments, tones or facial expressions from you will only compound the problem. Your teen will more than likely withdraw further and avoid help.
• Offer support, not punishments. It’s natural for parents to use every option they can think of to help their hurting teen; however, threats, punishments and ultimatums are counterproductive. These actions can further isolate and shame your already hurting teen. Let them know you are concerned and will do everything you can to take care of them. Be supportive and gentle with suggestions. Let your teen know you are there to talk anytime he or she needs to.
Remember self-harming is more often than not a symptom of a larger problem. Self-harming is your teen’s way of dealing with emotions they feel they don’t have the tools to adequately deal with. The best thing you can do for your teen is be supportive, present, loving and engaged.