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03-01 Spotting self-harm and dealing with it

Spotting self-harm and dealing with it

Noticing odd cuts or burns on your teen’s arms or legs? It might be time to face a harsh reality: Your teen is probably struggling with self-harm. Self-harm is a real problem with real consequences. Around 2 million cases, mostly in youths, are reported annually in the United States.

Understanding self-harm

Self-injury, or self-harm, is essentially a coping mechanism. An individual indulging in self-harm does so to deal with intense emotional and psychological distress, and injuring oneself is an attempt to find quick relief from this emotional pain.

Self-harm is characterized by deliberate, nonsuicidal behavior that imposes physical injury to the body. It includes actions like cutting, burning, pulling hair out in clumps, breaking bones, scratching, bruising, and drinking something harmful like bleach.

Such individuals find the physical pain of self-harm to be easier to deal with than the emotional pain behind it. This pain seems real as the injury is visible. It’s easier to classify than complex emotional pain. Such acts elicit a calming sensation or the perception of having control over a situation.

Even though self-harm isn’t typically suicidal behavior, prolonged emotional distress that causes self-injury can eventually lead to suicidal thoughts.

According to the Healthy Place, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men engage in self-injury. Around 90 percent of such behavior is initiated in adolescence, usually around age 14 and continues into the twenties.

Red flags to watch out for

  • Cut or burn marks on arms, legs and the abdomen or regular removal of bodily hair
  • Discovering sharp objects such as knives, razor blades and box cutters hidden in the teen’s bedroom
  • The teen locking herself or himself up in the bedroom or bathroom for lengthy durations
  • The teen’s peers self-injure themselves.
  • Blood stains on clothing, towels or bedding
  • The teen battles depression, low self-esteem and lack of motivation
  • The teen is withdrawn and isolated, spending long periods of time alone in his or her bedroom
  • Odd eating habits leading to sudden weight loss or gain
  • Usage of drugs or alcohol
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Strained relationships
  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability

How to help someone who self-injures?

Individuals who self-harm ultimately need support and understanding. They are struggling themselves to make sense of their negative emotions and how to deal with them. Parents should:

  • Stay calm. Resorting to anger, showing disgust or being negative will just close all lines of communication. The teen will feel alienated and eventually withdraw.
  • It is important to communicate in a non-judgmental, compassionate and supportive manner.
  • Take self-harm seriously. Accept that it is a problem and not just a phase that the teen will eventually grow out of. It’s not about attention-seeking or making a point.
  • Enlist treatment. This requires patience and understanding as recovery can take months or even years.
  • Focus on the underlying problems and emotions rather than the injury. Figure out why they harm themselves
  • Do not treat with mistrust. Self-injury is just a small part of the person that can be worked upon.

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, devoted to the provision of evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. Our program in Rancho San Diego is especially designed to treat teens and adolescents ages 12 to 17 struggling with their behavioral health. If you or your teen is trying to start on the road to recovery, please call our 24/7 helpline to learn more about how we can help.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at    

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