Self Harm and Teens
Do You Have a Sensitive Teen?
Self-Harm and Finding a Path To Self-care
Self-harm is often a big, scary word for parents. So I wanted to put pen to paper to address it today for what it is, why it develops and what to do if you worry that your teenager may self harm (ex: cut themselves). It is estimated that anywhere from 14-39% of teens engage in self-harm behaviour. Maybe you have caught them and have no not idea what to do. You may just want to be able to bring up a difficult issue with your teen and do not know how.
Self-harm is an immediate, physical and intentional act to the body that is not a suicide attempt (Freedom from Self-harm, Gratz & Chapman, 2009). Self-harm is used and develops as a way of dealing with really difficult feelings. One of the reasons teenagers are vulnerable and at higher risk than other age groups, is related to development. It is an age when childhood ends and feelings and abstract thought develops. This happens very quickly and when feelings intensify, for social and biological reasons, learning how to deal or cope with these intense feelings must also develop quickly. This is a part of why teens are at risk for drug use, self-harm, drinking alcohol etc. It is a time they tend to pull away from parents, but need support the most. When emotional support develops in friendships, this can be wonderful, if your child has healthy friends. But it can lead to teaching each other dysfunctional behaviours, if this is all your child’s friends know. We can only support each other the best way we know how to. Teens can also be socially rejected and not have friendships, leading to isolation. During these important years there is a lot of reflection and identity development. While first break-ups and friendships changing are common, there may also be external stressors ex: parent’s divorce. This creates the perfect breeding ground for dysfunctional coping mechanisms to be tried and learned, if healthier ones are not as readily available.
While self-harm may seem scary and extreme to some of us, it is also a powerful way to redirect intense feelings. It releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotions. It also affects our natural endorphins, which can lead to a pleasurable, euphoric feeling. As a result, it can be very addictive when it is used regularly. Self-harm behaviours can decrease, distract from or help express intense feelings. So treatment for self-harm behaviours focuses on learning healthy ways to cope and communicate feelings.
It is important to check-in with your teenager and keep the lines of communication open, even when it seems impossible. Your teen needs to feel emotionally supported and learn to talk about their feelings in a healthy way. Your teen is more risk if your family is going through significant changes, they are socially rejected and tend to withdraw, or are “moody” rather than verbally expressive.
My intention today is to make sure you are aware of your teenager’s vulnerability, so you can do your best to stay close. Connected teens are protected teens.
Lisa Shouldice MA, RP, CCP
Toronto Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapist
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