Almost every parent teaches their children to love and take care of themselves. Kids are taught about the proper diet and exercise, and to avoid activities that may harm them. Growing up they are reminded of this by parents and teachers alike.
This is why it is shocking and even scary for many to know that there are teens that intentionally hurt themselves.
Dubbed Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) or just self injury, this activity has been becoming widespread among the youth with one study stating that 14 – 17% of teens have reported such behavior (Whitlock, Eckenrode, & Silverman, 2006).
While such behavior does not lead directly to death, choosing to cut, bruise, or burn oneself means something serious must be going on. It is important to understand this phenomenon lest young people in the family or community reach a dangerous point of no return.
How is Self Injury Inflicted
Unfortunately for parents, there are many ways for teens to injure themselves. These usually begin with superficial ones, like slight scratching or cutting, and then move on to more serious injuries.
Among the different forms are biting, breaking bones, burning, cutting, hitting oneself, pinching themselves, pulling out hair, punching objects, and many more. Interfering with the healing of wounds (e.g. removing scabs) is also considered another method.
To prevent detection from others, injuries may be done to concealed parts of the body such as the upper leg or upper arm. In other instances, they may be done in places that are prone to injuries like the feet, hands, or forearms which may be easily explained as something “accidental.”
Researchers have found that self injury can become addictive (Nixon, Clouter, & Aggarwal, 2002), making it difficult to stop once started.
Why Hurt Themselves?
As difficult as it may be to imagine this craving for pain, there are several identifiable reasons for why self injury occurs.
Dealing with Emotional Pain
In some instances, a person is not able to properly deal with their emotional pain which is why they resort to physical pain through self-injury. The pain causes them to feel something in cases such as depression where they may feel emotionally numb, or the injury may allow them to focus on physical pain rather than their inner turmoil.
Self-injury may also be the person’s way of communicating their pain when they do not have the words for their emotions. It can also be a way of establishing control over their topsy-turvy emotional world similar to what those with eating disorders do.
Because of the various stressors in a teen’s life, self injury can become a means of self-punishment or even self-discipline.
Whenever they get a low grade, don’t do well in an activity, embarrass themselves in school, or disappoint their parents, they choose to hurt themselves to ensure that they do not mess up again.
This may seem extreme to many but sometimes for the teen, it is better to hurt themselves than receive such discipline from the people around them.
They say that young children are master manipulators. They know that if they want things their way they just have to throw a tantrum or shed a few tears. Teens, however, cannot act in the same way lest they be laughed at by their peers. So instead, self-injury is used as a means to control their parents or other guardians, allowing them to get what they want or prevent what they dislike.
Self-injury may also be a means of getting attention from others. Busy parents, for example, often ignore their teens, thinking that they are old enough to take care of themselves. Thus, some teens harm themselves to get their parents’ attention once more.
What are the Signs to Watch for?
Regardless of why teens decide to harm themselves, the resulting “relief” is only temporary, causing them to inflict harm once more which is very similar to the vicious cycle that substance abuse addicts experience.
So as concerned parents, guardians, or friends, it is important to consider whether a teen may be at risk for self-injury or something even more serious.
1. Risk Factors
Many times, a teen’s past and/or current history can already give clues to the possible danger of self-injury. Here are some risk factors that may lead to self-harm:
- History of physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Mental illness (e.g. anxiety, bipolar disorders, depression)
- Substance usage problems (e.g. alcohol, narcotics, prescription medicines)
- Having friends who engage in self-injury
2. Possible Warning Signs
Usually, those who inflict injury upon themselves are ashamed of what they do. Thus, they try to find ways to hide it from the people around them. The following are some possible signs of self-injury:
- They always wear concealing clothes (e.g. gloves, jackets, or long-sleeves) despite warm conditions, especially if already indoors.
- They have an unusual amount of accessories (e.g. bracelets) that cover much of the arms.
- They frequently incur bruises, scratches or other injuries.
- They seem to become more and more isolated from others.
Of course, due to today’s different fashion styles and concerns about body image, it is possible that a teen simply feels happy and comfortable with what they wear (yes, even if it’s Goth in the summer!). But if known risk factors are present and the unusual warning signs present themselves, it may truly be a case of self-injury.
3. Attempts at Suicide
If the idea of their teen hurting themselves is scary for a parent, then suicide is downright frightening. If a teen is engaged in self-injury, then one must be wary of a possible suicide attempt.
Research has shown that persons who intentionally inflict injury upon themselves have a high chance of attempting suicide. One research found out that self-injury was associated with suicide attempts in their participants, second only to suicidal thinking. (Klonsky, May, and Glenn, 2013)
While not all teens engaged in self-injury attempt suicide, there is a risk. It is important to discover if suicidal thoughts are there. And if so, then professional help should be sought out.
How to Help Teens Struggling with Self Injury
The idea of intentionally hurting oneself leads to all kinds of questions about the mental stability of that loved one. This is why shock and fear may be the initial reaction upon discovering such behavior. However, in order to help, one must be calm and willing to support the person.
Hence, the first thing to do is to control any negative reactions and be there for them. Your loved one needs positive emotional support so talk to them about their issues and show them that you care. If this is not received, the teen might sense your fear and disgust and do something even more serious.
Now when giving such support, make sure you do not require them to stop or shame them. If you do, they might become more secretive, making the situation more difficult.
Next, it is important to inform the teen’s guardians as self injury may mean there are serious medical and mental issues. This, however, must be done in the right way lest that loved one feel afraid or even betrayed.
Inform the teen first of your good intentions and that you are on their side, but there is an ethical obligation for their sake. And make sure that it is only the guardians and trained professionals you speak to about this. Telling others will just hurt the teen’s reputation and scar them even more.
The Need for Treatment
Stopping a teen from self injury is very difficult to do. As a means of coping emotionally, it is not easy to convince that loved one to just stop. This is why professional help is needed. In a safe and neutral environment, the teen can express themselves more clearly and share the underlying problem.
In therapy, the self-injuring teen will learn how to express these emotions in a healthier way and also develop a better self-image. Both of these are important to prevent a relapse.
Family therapy is also important so that family members will better understand the situation and not view their teen in a negative way. Loving support is always key when dealing with mental and emotional issues.
If you or a loved one is engaged in self injury, seek professional help soon. There is hope if addressed immediately. If not, something more serious may occur.
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