When your teen is engaging in self-harm it can be an extremely difficult time to be a parent. Most parents understand depression but few parents are experienced with self-harming behavior and confuse it with a desire to commit suicide. Self-harm is actually referred to as non-suicidal self-injury in medical literature and is a lot more common than most parents might imagine. Depending on the source, the prevalence of this behavior is pegged between 10 and 25 percent of teenagers.
On the outside, self-harm looks destructive and painful. However many teens report it is a coping mechanism either to manage their feelings or to feel at all (because they have shut down). Because cutting releases endorphins it actually feels soothing to teens who lack another ability to manage their issues. As endorphins are activated the brain begins to create a positive association which can become addictive in the same way another teen might resort to drugs or alcohol.
What Can A Parent Do?
If you do not have any experience with self-harm, try not to overreact. As difficult as may feel increasing your teen’s anxiety about their self-harm might make them resistant to treatment. Your best course of action is to respond as calmly as possible. After treating the wounds, your first step would be to seek out a mental health professional who is well-experienced in self-harm. It is a complex issue but self-injury is treatable with therapy. Aside from counseling, there are several things you can do to help your teen to find other ways to express their issues.
Communicate—Talk to your teen. If face-to-face communication is overwhelming to them, suggest email or hand-written notes.
Compassion and Empathy—By displaying compassion and empathy, you will help your teen feel safe. Avoid blaming your teen or yourself in any way. The injuries are skin deep but the issues behind them are much deeper.
Let Them Be—It will be tempting to want to hover over your teenager but allow them space. Monitor their activities and keep an eye out for new injuries but avoid negative reactions.
Get Help—Of course your teen needs help but this is also an emotional moment for you too. Avoid discussing your teen’s self-harm with anyone who might betray your confidence. To your teen, knowing you were talking about them may cause them to escalate.
Triggers—Teens who self-harm quite often have a specific set of triggering events or circumstances. Watch for patterns and help your teen recognize them too.
Coping Mechanisms—With your teen’s counselor, help them find more positive ways to manage their issues. Self-harm typically can be managed by giving teens other methods to use such as exercise, listening to music, holding an ice cube until it melts, writing negative feelings and then ripping up the paper; and drawing or writing in red ink. Medication may also be appropriate.
If your teen is self-harming, seek treatment immediately for your teen and yourself.