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  • Writer's picturePaige Wilcken

Self-Harm: A Guide for Parents of Teens

*If you are at risk for self-harm or suicide or are experiencing a mental health crisis please call or text for help (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741)*


Self-harm can be a difficult subject to address. It can be difficult to know how to help someone who is struggling with such tendencies. My hope is that parents and other mentor figures in a teen's life can find the information they need in this article.



What is Self-Harm?


Self-harm is the act of hurting oneself on purpose. One common form of self-harm is cutting but there are many ways that self-harm can be carried out. Some forms include:

  • scratching

  • burning

  • hitting oneself including banging one's head

  • pulling out hair

  • picking at existing wounds

  • piercing skin with sharp things

  • biting oneself

  • poisoning

Although this is not an extensive list, it gives you an idea of some of the ways people may self-harm and signs to watch out for.


Knowing what physical signs to look for is important because self-harm generally happens in secret. It is a form of obtaining a release from painful feelings and emotions. Although self-harm is not a mental health diagnosis itself, it is often linked to one. Some of the potential diagnoses it could be linked to include anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders.


Reasons for Self-Harm


There are multiple reasons why people self-harm. Ultimately self-harm becomes a way of coping with negative experiences and feelings. Here is a list why some people self-harm:

  • To process negative feelings

  • To distract from negative feelings

  • To feel something if they feel numb inside

  • To have a feeling of control

  • To punish themselves if they feel they've done something wrong

  • To express emotions they do not want to show

  • To see if anyone will notice

Often self-harm provides somewhat of a short-term release from the gravity of emotions that the individual is experiencing. Other times self-harm can leave the individual feeling worse than before.


If people begin to self-harm themselves regularly then it is likely they have come to depend on it in a way. Once this has happened it becomes quite difficult to stop because at this point it is similar to an addiction.



How to Reduce and Eliminate Self-Harm


Parents play a crucial role in helping their teen reduce these behaviors. Essentially, parents need to be there to help their teens cope in a different and more healthy way. This can be done by starting with one simple thing; spending more time with your teen. Make spending time as a family a priority.


One way you can get your teenager engaged in family time is by having them occasionally choose what the family does and plan it out. Having regular family time together allows more trust to develop between family members and creates an inviting atmosphere. That way teens can be more comfortable with coming to their parents about things that are troubling them or that they are struggling with.



Parents essentially need to be confident that their teenager knows the love they have for them and will be there for them no matter what. One way to help this connection develop even more is through telling stories. These stories could be about past struggles which can help them understand that their parents know somewhat of what they are going through.


Creating a bond is so important but if you are struggling with finding other ways to help your teen stop self-harming behaviors, consider going to family therapy. Family therapy is not just for conflicts in family but it is also helpful when families need to learn the best ways to support a certain family member.


Seek other support systems and strategies as well to help your teen. Teach them self-help strategies such as meditation, exercise, getting enough sleep and food, etc.


Most of all, be there for them. Listen to them. Push any judgement aside. Reassure them of the abilities they have to push forward and recover from this. They need these things from you more than ever due to them struggling with the overload of emotions they may be feeling.



Create a Plan


Having a plan of what the teenager can do in case they want to harm themselves can help prevent self-harm. One way to create this "safety plan" is by downloading a template from the Samaritans website.


This safety plan allows the teen to brainstorm ideas for coping strategies to try instead of self-harming. It also includes making a list of people the teen trusts to talk to in those situations.


If none of these plans work then it also includes a list of professionals and agencies you can call. This can include professionals that the teen has been in contact with in the past or general agencies that support mental health crises.


Conclusion


Being informed on the signs and the reasons for self-harm is critical in making that first step in helping someone recover from it. Remember that self-harm is quite similar to an addiction and should be treated as such. This includes understanding that the recovery process will likely take time and there may be relapses along the way.


Be patient and caring towards the one you are helping. They need your love and support in helping them as they learn new and better ways to cope.


If you ever think the self-harming behavior is becoming suicidal behavior here is a link which helps you recognize the difference between the two.


*If you are at risk for self-harm or suicide or are experiencing a mental health crisis please call or text for help (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741)*


Sources


6 things to know about self-injury. Mental Health America. (2019). https://mhanational.org/blog/6-things-know-about-self-injury.


Adolescent self-harm. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. (n.d.). https://aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Adolescent_Self_Harm.aspx.


Blasco-Fontecilla, H., Fernández-Fernández, R., Colino, L., Fajardo, L., Perteguer-Barrio, R., & de Leon, J. (2016). The addictive model of self-harming (non-suicidal and suicidal) behavior. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00008/full.


How to deal with self-harm. Crisis Text Line. (2021). https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/self-harm/#what-is-self-harm-1. How to help someone who self-harms. Mental Health First Aid. (2018). https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2018/12/how-to-help-someone-who-self-harms/


Supporting someone with suicidal thoughts. Samaritans. (n.d.). https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/if-youre-worried-about-someone-else/supporting-someone-suicidal-thoughts/creating-safety-plan/.


Self-harm. Mind. (2020). https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/self-harm/about-self-harm/.


The truth about self-harm. Mental Health Foundation. (2020). https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/truth-about-self-harm.


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