Self-harm and teenagers

What is self-harm?

The term self-harm is used to describe someone who intentionally inflicts physical or emotional pain on themselves. This can take many forms.

Physical self-harm includes:

Cutting, burning, scratching, hitting walls, pulling out hair, overdosing, not eating, over eating and not caring for the body, e.g. not maintaining personal hygiene.

Emotional self-harm includes:

Staying in abusive or bullying relationships or friendships, seeking out emotionally dangerous situations.

Warning signs of self-harm:

Ask yourself this question… “Has your teenager been acting differently around you?” Not letting you see their arms or legs for example? Or wearing clothes that cover them up in hot weather.

Physical signs:

  • Watch out for bruises and cuts to thighs, arms or legs.
  • Bald patches on the scalp.
  • Making themselves sick.
  • Throwing food away.
  • Over eating/unusual eating habits.
  • Drinking/taking drugs.

Emotional signs:

Discovering your teenager is self-harming can leave you feeling shocked and unsure how to approach things. Understanding why self-harming helps your teenager is the first step.

The teenage years bring an avalanche of conflicting thoughts, feelings and emotions. Alongside this there is also peer pressure, exam pressure and the need to “fit in”.

Self-harming is a coping mechanism. It is a way of releasing overwhelming emotions that feel impossible to process or put into words. Self-harming provides an instant relief and leaves your teenager feeling calmer and in control. For your teenager physical pain is easier to deal with than emotional pain. This is because chemicals in the brain are released during self-harming that produce a calming and pleasurable feeling. The problem is these chemicals become addictive which then encourages the behaviour to continue.

What can you do to help?

Your teenager needs to find another way to deal with overwhelming feelings so that they don’t feel the need to use self-harm as a coping strategy. Changing self-harming behaviour takes time so you will need to be patient and unconfrontational in order to support them.

Begin by showing understanding, listen to their thoughts/views/feelings. Try not to judge or demand by issuing ultimatums or threats. Help your child feel you are on their side. Remember, the aim is to help then find a different way to deal with feelings. Help them to build a support network of friends, teachers and others that they can access when needed.

Work together to discover their emotional triggers, e.g. when they have upset a friend or feel overwhelmed by school demands. Encourage physical activity like sports or walking. This helps because it produces natural chemicals that have the same effect as those produced by self-harming and will leave your teenager with the same calmness.

Remain vigilant, try not to chastise or berate. Work on building your childs trust.

Think about seeking professional support from your GP or health visitor. Think about accessing counselling support for your teenager and yourself. Accessing support for yourself allows you to process your own thoughts and feelings so they don’t impact on the way you support your teenager.

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