Self Injury

Self-Harm Behaviors

We hear a lot about it, but what is it really? It’s all over teen culture and it seems to be a popular trend amongst students, but why? Self-Harm is often done as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotions they can’t or don’t know how to handle. 

We often characterize self-harm as someone who cuts their arms with a blade or something sharp. However self-harm also includes burning their skin, hitting themselves, head-banging, skin picking or scratching, interfering with a wound that’s healing, bone-breaking, biting, embedding objects into their skin, and using an eraser to burn their skin. 

The relief that is initially felt after they self-injure quickly becomes something they crave. It’s a sense of false peace. Addiction forms before they even realize it. To push the numbness aside or gain command of their life that seems to be spiraling out of control is to injure themselves. 

There is no stereotypical boy or girl who self-harms. That's why it can be very shocking when we discover our kids doing it. It is very important for parents and youth workers to know that self-harm behavior is NOT suicidal behavior! Even though the behavior is counter-intuitive, they are treating one type of pain with another in hopes that the emotional pain will go away.       

Youth use Self-Harm for: 

1.     Clarity- some teens feel emotionally numb, so they use cutting to "feel" and experience emotional reaction

2.     Calm Themselves- our bodies release "feel-good" chemicals when we are injured. Our bodies can't determine the causation of the injury so it releases the calming feel good chemicals to reduce the pain. 

3.     Communicate- some behaviors are cries for help, attention and to be known. 

4.     Control- when life is out of control, being intentional even with maladaptive behaviors, restores balance internally.    

5.     Condemn- some teens do not feel valuable and equate their mistakes with their worth. So punishing self is justice. 

Signs your teen may be self-harming:

  • Wearing long-sleeves or long pants during inappropriate weather
  • Using a lot of ban-aids or gauze
  • Finding razors, knives, scissors, safety pins, and other sharp items in odd places, (i.e. underwear drawer, under the bed, in the night stand, in the closet, etc.)
  • Discovering blood in the trash, sinks, floors, bath, on clothes
  • Following Pro Self-harm sites, or sites highlighting eating disorders (referred to as Thinspiration sites) on social media like Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. 
  • Decreased tolerance to stress

How to approach your teen about Self-Harm:

  • Be direct and calm
  • Don’t start the conversation with a “why” question, this will make them defensive and shut down. For example, don’t say “Why did you do this?” “Why did you think this would help?” 
  • Instead focus on their emotions, “What were you feeling when you did this?” “Did it help you feel better when you cut?” 
  • Ask how you can help and support. This allows them to see that you want to walk with them through this, and want to empower them to make better choices.
Listen to the Mid-Morning Podcast as I share more about helping teens who struggle with Self-Harm. 

Paige Clingenpeel

Teen Therapist working with teens and parents on TV, Radio, Web-Based Media, Blogs, and Print. Presently a monthly contributor to the women's parenting & marriage site iMom.com, and host of TBN's Tween show iShine K'Nect. Paige also provides individual therapy at LifeSprings Counseling Center, and works at Parkview Health as a student assistant counselor assigned to Carroll High School. Paige is married to Ryan and has two daughters and two sons!