There is no question that parents often struggle to understand their teenagers but when it comes to things like cutting and self-harm, many parents are simply at a loss. Although teenagers of every generation have struggled to deal with the onslaught of emotional, physical, and mental changes that are a part of the teen years, this way of dealing with that overwhelm is not something most parents today did or heard about when they were teens. This inability to understand or relate to this type of behavior can make it very difficult for parents to provide the support and assistance their teens need in order to learn healthier ways to cope. The first step toward helping a teen that is participating in self-harm is to understand what this behavior looks like and why it is happening.
Self-harming behavior is categorized as any behavior that results in deliberately inflicted injury on your body. This can include things like cutting, scratching, hitting, head banging, skin piercing, biting, and intentional burning. In most cases, teenagers are participating in self-harm as a way to cope with intense emotional distress that they don’t know how to handle. Most teens who self-harm participate in more than one type of self-injury and most injuries occur on the arms, legs, and other parts of the front of the body.
Self- harm often offers an outlet for extreme emotions that cannot be expressed in another way. It can also be a way to impose control on an otherwise out of control world. It can be a cry for help or a tool for manipulation. For some teens, self-harm is calming because it allows for the release of tension or pent up emotions.
Unlike some other mental health conditions, self-harm has no real cause although it can co-exist with other mental health problems like depression and eating disorders. Although most people who engage in this type of activity are teenagers, people of all ages can use self-injury as a coping strategy for handling intense emotions. Although there is no specific cause, there are some risk factors that can increase the likelihood that someone will use self-harm as a coping strategy. Those factors include age as most people who self-harm are teenagers, mental health, and life experiences. Teens who have been abused or neglected during their childhood or who have experienced a significant loss, like the death of a parent, are more likely than their peers to participate in self-harm.
If you suspect that a teenager in your life is participating in self-harming behavior, don’t wait to get them help. Start by contacting their medical doctor or a mental health provider to discuss your concerns. Ask that your teen be evaluated for self-harm and other potential mental health conditions. Listen to your provider’s advice about next steps for diagnosis, treatment options, and other things you need to do to get your teen the help and support they need.
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