Many of the teens I work with have used self-harm as a coping behaviour. Teens might feel like their parents “don’t get it” and like it is the only coping mechanism that is providing some temporary relief. It can be terrifying for parents who discover this and feel unsure on how to help with their teens pain and suffering.
If you are a concerned parent of a teen who is self-harming, this blog will talk about the what’s, the why’s, and the how to help.
what is self-injury and self-harm?
Self-harm and self-injury can be used interchangeably and they are behaviours such as cutting, hitting, scratching, pulling out hair, punching hard objects, etc. Any behaviour that causes injury to one's body can be considered self-harm. This is different than participating in a high risk activity that may cause self-injury in that the purpose of self-harming behaviours is to cope with psychological pain and overwhelm. Cutting is one of most prevalent methods of self-harm in adolescents at this time.
why do people self-harm?
We know that self-harming behaviours are used as a coping method to deal with psychological pain and overwhelm. Sometimes parents will ask me, “is my teen doing this to get attention?”. Well the short answer is: Maybe. Not attention in the way of “look at me” but more so a cry for help or a way of saying “I’m really struggling right now”.
Other times, parents will wonder if their teen is trying to complete suicide. Most often suicide is not the desired outcome. Teens who are self-harming may also have thoughts of suicide, but the self-harming behaviour is not usually intended as a lethal means.
So then, why? Well most often self-harming behaviours are used as a way to get relief in managing psychological pain. Whether it is to numb, express, or release pain or a way of gaining a sense of control over emotional overwhelm, these are usually the reasons people turn to self-harm.
The problem with this type of coping is that it provides temporary relief, meaning the psychological pain and overwhelm come back, which keeps a person in a cycle of self-harm. Also, physiologically there is a release of neurotransmitters and endorphins that are linked to that sense of relief. The more a person engages in self-harming behaviours, the more the body habituates and people tend to need to do more of the behaviour in order to get the same physiological response. This means higher risk in the behaviour, such as deeper or more cutting, and this can lead to dangerous outcomes and unwanted consequences (e.g. infection, scarring, etc.)
how you can help when your teen is self-harming
The first thing is to take it seriously. The sooner you can respond with caring and empathy, the quicker you can turn around this coping strategy. If your teen is scraping their legs or rubbing themselves really hard in response to a situation, this still warrants your attention in a real way. You can help early on and avoid the behaviours from escalating into something worse. Responding with caring and empathy can include:
T - Tell a trusted adult
(get your teen to name 3+ adults they can talk to if they have the urge to self-harm, e.g. parent, teacher, coach, relative, etc.)
T - Tag your triggers
(ask about things, people, situations, and emotions that increase the urge to self-harm)
U - Up your self-care
(get your teen to collab on a list of things they enjoy doing or people that bring them comfort, e.g. reading, listening to music, going for tea, hugs, doing their hair, exercising, hanging out with friends, etc.)
R - Replacement behaviours
(understanding why your teen is using self-harming behaviours will help you come up with alternative behaviours that have less risky consequences. For example, if it is about numbing pain which releases endorphins, look at some behaviours that release endorphins such as, exercising, punching a pillow, eating dark chocolate, laughing, etc.)
N - Negotiating Harm Reduction
(come up with ways to reduce the risk such as making sharp objects less accessible, having them pain or draw on the body parts instead of injuring, using rubber bands or ice instead of sharp objects, etc.)
Third, consider working with a therapist for additional support. The root cause of self-harming behaviours may be related to managing feelings such as anxiety, fear, stress, anger, depression etc. It may also be related to larger mental health concerns or a lack of coping tools and strategies. A therapist can work alongside your teen (and your family as needed) to help them develop other strategies and offer them a safe place to express their thoughts and emotions.
As a therapist myself, I can support you and your teen with creative sessions in person, via video, or walk and talk appointments. I use hands-on methods to support your teen to communicate through their self-harm. You can book a free consultation with me here.
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- Chantal Côté, R.Psych, Pyramid Psychology - helping older children, teens, and young adults learn how to build bulletproof mindsets.
Chantal Côté is a Registered Psychologist in the province of Alberta and the owner of Pyramid Psychology. Pyramid Psychology mission is to help teen girls build Bulletproof Mindsets. Youth are full of greatness and uniqueness and it is a gift to have them share this with the world. Pyramid Psychology supports teens (and parents) that are struggling with anxious and overwhelmed thoughts and feelings. Meeting in person in Southeast Calgary, on-line for those living anywhere in Alberta, and outdoors for walk and talk sessions, Chantal uses a trauma informed lens and invites people to try thought based, mindfulness, and expressive practices to manage and weather the storms of life.