What Parents Need to Know About Self-Injury

I didn’t know anyone that self-harmed when I was a teenager. I didn’t even know that it was a thing. This may sound crazy to teens who hear about it at least on a weekly basis at school now, but I wasn’t just naive!

The rates of self-injury in adolescents has been increasing in the past 20 years. According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Emergency Department visits by teen girls aged 10-14 due to self-injury increased by about 19% per year between 2009 and 2015! Rates for older teens have increased by about 8% per year in that same time frame.

With this increase, it is important that parents educate themselves on self-injury, what it is, signs to be aware of, and how to help teens who engage in self-harm.

What is self-injury?

Self-injury is any behavior that a person engages in to intentionally cause physical harm to themselves. I will often use the term self-harm interchangeably but in reality many people use self-harm as a broader term used to describe a variety of harmful behaviors. Others describe self-sabotaging, casual sex, drug and alcohol use, pushing people away, over-eating, and even putting other people’s needs before your own as self-harm. I agree that all these behaviors can be harmful to a person but unless they are meant to intentionally cause harm to oneself than I would just consider them poor decisions. For now I will only be focusing on intentionally causing physical injury to oneself.

Why do teens self-injure?

Self-injury is a sign that a person is in emotional distress and needs help. It is used as a maladaptive coping skill for difficult emotions. People who self-injure may be depressed, anxious, have experienced abuse, or may just be overly stressed out. They are often dealing with intense feelings and they don’t know how to manage them. They learn that self-harm distracts them from the emotional pain, releases endorphins, and temporarily makes them feel better. Once a person learns that it relieves the negative emotions, they are more likely to continue.

Forms of self-injury

The most common ways teens self-harm are cutting, head banging or hitting their head, and burning. Other methods include punching objects, scratching skin, injesting harmful chemicals, and breaking bones. Of course, kids don’t stick to this list and will often use their imaginations to come up with more creative methods of injury.

I have personally worked with clients who have done the previously mentioned behaviors as well as some who have used shoe laces to create a rub burn, punched a window, punched a tree, stapled their hand, choked themselves, or used an object to smash their hand. Again, the importance here is that they were wanting to cause harm or injury to themselves and not just cause physical damage to an object.

Who self-injures?

When you think of a person who self-injures, it is likely that you think of a 15-16 year old girl that is dressed in goth. This may have been a more accurate stereotype 25+ years ago but it is definitely not the case now. Teens who self-injure break all stereotypes.

Both males and females engage in self-injury. A teen that self-injures can be a starter on the football team, the class valedictorian, or may be starring in the next school play. He/she may be your average teenager with decent grades, good friends, and a good support network. They may attend church regularly. Or they could be in trouble with the law, using drugs, or sexually promiscuous.

Age is not a factor either. Remember my earlier statistic was for girls aged 10-14! We don’t want to think of our kids who are still in elementary and middle school as being susceptible to self-injury but the truth is that they are.

Basically if you have a teenager you need to be aware of self-injury.

If my teen self-harms, does it mean they have a mental health disorder?

It could. Self-injury itself is not a mental health disorder, but it could be a symptom of another issue. Many teens that self-harm are depressed, anxious, or experiencing another mental health disorder. But not all. As I mentioned before, the emotions become overwhelming and they seek out relief. They could also be self-medicating with drugs. People are individuals, however, so don’t assume that just because they are harming themselves that they are definitely doing other things or have other mental health issues.

Where do teens learn self-injury?

It is scary to think of how young kids and teens are starting to self-harm. How is it that they even think about doing such a thing? They learn from their peers and from media. As it becomes more common, they will likely notice the scars of cuts on a friends arms or legs, hear peers or friends talk about it at school, or see it on social media.

There have also been examples of self-harm on TV shows or movies that they may have seen. The most recent example is 13 Reasons Why which has been highly talked about by teens.

Although it is good for increased awareness, we need to focus on helping these teens before they see it as an option for themselves.

What can I do?

As a parent (or adult that is around teens), you need to learn more about self-injury. Notice changes in your teens behavior that may tell you that something is up. Talk to them and teach them ways to manage their emotions in a safe way.

If you notice signs of self-injury it is time to get them help. Make sure to stay calm while talking to your teens about self-injury. They already feel emotional, sad, and shameful. You don’t want to add to their overwhelm and increase their risk for additional self-injury. Express your love and caring, your concern, and be firm with them while discussing their need to see someone.