Understanding and Supporting Teens Who Self-Harm: A Guide for Parents
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Understanding and Supporting Teens Who Self-Harm: A Guide for Parents

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Self-harm among teens is a significant and often misunderstood issue. While it can be challenging to discuss, understanding self-harm is crucial for both parents and teens. This guide provides valuable insights to help you recognize the signs and offer support.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm, also called self-injury, refers to deliberate behaviors that are aimed at causing physical harm to oneself. It’s a temporary way to cope with strong emotions. 

Research has found that nearly 1 in 5 teenagers may struggle with self-harm at some point during their adolescence. Self-harm is more common in teenage girls. Types of self-harm can include skin cutting, burning, pulling out hair, picking at existing wounds, headbanging or hitting. Up to 90% of self-harming injuries are done by cutting. Helping a teen get proper treatment can help them learn healthier ways to cope with their emotions and struggles. 

Why do teens turn to self-harm behaviors?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Your teenager turning to self-harm may have you experiencing feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. However, It’s important not to blame yourself if your teen is self-harming. Self-harm is a complex issue. It can be influenced by a variety of factors, and parental support isn’t a sole determining factor. You can focus on understanding and empathizing with the struggles your teen is dealing with, help them get professional help, and create a supportive environment. 

Common reasons a teen may turn to self-harm can include:

  • Gaining a sense of control over their lives — If a teen is feeling overwhelmed by school, family issues or peer pressure, turning to self-harm can make them feel like they have a temporary sense of control over their lives.
  • Releasing pent-up feelings of anger, sadness or anxiety — A teen may turn to self-harm to express their intense or pent-up feelings or confusion as they struggle to verbally express or cope in healthier ways. 
  • Crying out for help — For some teens, self-harming can be a way for them to cry out for attention, understanding or support. This may because they feel isolated, misunderstood or uncertain how to seek help they need.
  • Responding to intrusive thoughts — Intrusive thoughts like self-criticism or self-doubt can drive teens to self-harm. It can be a way to silence or cope with these persistent and distressing mental patterns.

A teenager may turn to self-harm as a way to provide themselves with temporary relief from emotional pain. It’s a dangerous distraction technique that can become addictive. Focusing on the physical pain can help take a person’s mind off the emotional turmoil swirling inside of them. Self-harm can and will do more harm in the long run. Consequences of untreated self-harming behaviors can include:

  • Increased feelings of shame, disgust or guilt
  • Permanent scarring
  • Injured tendons, nerves, blood vessels and muscles
  • Social isolation and poor interpersonal relationships
  • Poor self-esteem and self-image
  • Worsening of underlying issues or conditions
  • Infection at the self-injury site
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Accidental death 

What increases a teen’s risk of self-harm behaviors?

Despite how common self-harming can be in teens, not a lot is known how to accurately predict which teens are more at risk. Certain factors may increase the risk of a teen turning to self-harm:

  • Being a female teenager
  • Coming from a low socioeconomic status
  • Experiencing bullying
  • Experiencing adverse childhood experiences like sexual or physical abuse
  • Having a mental health condition
  • Having low-self esteem
  • Having troubled relationships with friends or family
  • Struggling to cope with the loss of a friend or family member 

Signs parents of teens should look for

Turning to self-harm behaviors is not just about seeking attention or being dramatic. It’s important to keep your eyes open for some telltale signs. Signs may be evident on their arms, legs and front torso, as well as on other body parts. These can include:

  • Having unexplained cuts, bruises or burns, especially in easy-to-hide places and in patterns or clusters
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants even when the weather is warm to cover up marks
  • Keeping sharp objects, like razor blades or knives
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family
  • Expressing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Having sudden changes in behaviors, mood swings or increased irritability
  • Having a difficult time handling or expressing their emotions or feelings 

Does self-harm increase the risk of suicide?

A tough question that comes along with the topic of self-harm is: Does self-harming behavior increase the risk of suicide or suicide attempts? It’s a complicated answer, but the short answer is yes. If underlying issues are not addressed or the teen continues to struggle with overwhelming emotions, the desire to escape or end the pain may increase. A momentary escalation of self-harm may result in an intentional or unintentional suicide attempt.

How to help a teen who self-harms

What can you do if you suspect that your teen is self-harming? The most important thing is to approach them and the situation with empathy and understanding. Supporting your teen requires patience, understanding and a nonjudgmental approach. Steps you can take to help support your teen include:

  • Educate yourself — Understanding the reasons behind self-harm can help you respond in a more empathetic and effective manner. 
  • Foster open and honest communication — Approach your teen with care and empathy. Assure them that you are there to support them, no matter what. Create a safe and nonjudgmental space for them to talk about their feelings, experiences and struggles. Let them know you are there to listen and support them without criticism.
  • Express concern and empathy — Express your concern for their well-being. Let them know you care about their safety and their mental health. Using empathetic language can help show them you are trying to understand their emotional pain and struggles. Validate their feelings, offer encouragement and reassure them that they aren’t alone. 
  • Encourage them to get help — Encourage them to talk to a professional Offer to help them find a therapist, counselor or support group.
  • Develop coping strategies — Work together with your teen and their mental health professional to help them develop healthy coping strategies to manage emotions and stress. Encourage them to do self-care activities, promote relaxation and have positive outlets for expression.
  • Create a safety plan — Work with your teen to create a safety plan that includes their coping strategies, trusted contacts to turn to, and emergency contacts like a crisis hotline or mental health services. 
  • Remove or limit access to harmful objects — If at all possible, remove or limit their access to objects or substances they can use to self-harm. Creating a safer environment can help reduce their risk of harm.

It’s also important to take care of your own mental health to effectively help support your teen. It can be challenging and overwhelming to cope with your teen’s self-harming behavior. Seeking counseling can help you become better educated about self-harm, receive guidance on how to communicate with your teen about their feelings, process your own feelings and emotions, and develop strategies to help you create a safe and supportive environment at home. A support group for parents of teens who self-harm can give you a space to share your experience and receive support from others who are facing similar challenges. 

Treatment options for self-harming behaviors

Seeking professional help is crucial to help address self-harming effectively. Teens and their families need to work closely with mental health professionals. Working with a mental health professional can help your teen:

  • Understand and address underlying issues — Understanding the underlying emotional, psychological or social factors contributing to your teen’s self-harming behavior is crucial to develop an effective treatment plan. This may include specialized treatment for underlying mental health conditions. 
  • Learn healthy coping skills — A mental health professional can teach your teen healthy coping strategies to manage overwhelming emotions, stress and triggers without resorting to self-harm.
  • Build self-esteem and self-compassion — Therapy can help your teen improve their self-esteem, develop self-compassion and challenge negative self beliefs that may contribute to their self-harming thoughts and behaviors.
  • Enhance communication skills — Therapy can give your teen a safe space to express their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly. Improving their communication skills can help them articulate their needs, boundaries and emotions more effectively.
  • Identify triggers and warning signs — Therapy can help your teen identify triggers and warning signs that may come before their self-harming behaviors. By learning these signs, they can turn to their coping strategies and support system before self-harming happens. 

Treatment options that can be effective in helping self-harming behaviors include therapy, and in some cases, medication if there are underlying mental health conditions. 

At Lightfully, we use a unique treatment approach with process-based therapy (PBT). PBT can be an effective therapy approach to help teens who are struggling with self-harming behavior. You can think of it as a toolbox that is filled with the best evidence-based techniques from different therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The best techniques are chosen based on each teenager’s specific needs to provide whole-person-centered care. 

How does PBT work? A therapist will sit down with the teen to understand what’s going on. This helps them figure out what is triggering the self-harming behavior and what thoughts and feelings are wrapped up in it. Together, they will set goals that fit the teen’s needs. This could include learning how to deal with hard emotions without turning to self-harm. 

Once a plan is put together, the next step begins. This is where all the parts from different techniques come in. The therapist might use CBT strategies to help the teen challenge negative thoughts. DBT strategies can help them learn to handle intense emotions. ACT can help them figure out what really matters and how to live a life that lines up with that. 

Overcoming self-harming behaviors with Lightfully Teen

At Lightfully Teen, we understand that the struggles teens face can be overwhelming. That’s why we want to make sure your teen knows they’re not alone. 

Change is possible. To take the first step, reach out to us. We’ll take the next steps together.

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