When Your Child Indulges in Self-Injury: What Parents Can Do

Self-harm, or self-injury, is alarmingly an increasing trend among teenagers. There are an estimated 20% of teenagers who have, at one point, tried or are continuing to inflict physical harm using fire, knives, razorblades, scissors or even safety pins and paper clips. What’s more, teens are becoming more creative in how they self-injure – biting, hitting, biting, burning, scratching or pulling their hair.

Why do teens cut?

Teens cut for a variety of reasons. It can be a way for them to cry out for attention. It can also be a way to soothe out the stress or pressure they are feeling and are unable to express in through some other way. Some teens also self-injure for the rush or as a way to feel alive or feel some stronger emotion other than numbness. Still, there are other teens who self-injure as a way to compensate for some fault they perceive they did.

Even though self-injury is usually not a pre-cursor to suicide, the acts themselves can be alarming, especially for parents. Parents to be the ones to take the steps to help their teen. Often, teens who self-cut also have problems expressing and coping with their emotions, let alone take the steps towards resolving their issues.

Being on the lookout

Parents need to be aware of the possibility that their teens are cutting. This is an important step towards being able to recognize the red flags if and when they present themselves. These red flags include:
– Unexplained injuries. Teens may try to give suspicious answers to why they have injuries such as “the cat scratched me” when the wounds obviously do not look like cat scratches. There may also be multiple scars that are on various phases of healing.
– The use of cover-up strategies. If your child insists on wearing long-sleeved shirts (even during the summer season), chunky bracelets and wristbands, he or she may not be simply making a fashion statement. Check for signs that they are using scar makeup as well.
– Withdrawal from family and social activities. Your teen may start being unusually introspective and withdrawn, especially during activities that require them to reveal some skin. Observe how they act in the pool, the beach or gym class.
– Telltale signs in the bedroom or bathroom. Are they taking a long time in the bathroom? Is he or she always holed up in their bedroom? Do medical supplies seem to disappear from the medicine cabinet? Do you find used razors, thumbtacks or bloody tissues in the bathroom trashcan?

What you can do

Teens who have issues with cutting will likely be very sensitive about the problem. It takes some patience and a lot of self-control on your end before you can start making inroads to helping your teen. It is important to act promptly – cutting can be addictive and the earlier the problem is nipped in the bud, the better.

Here are some do’s and don’ts”
– Don’t overreact. Even if you are freaking out and in disbelief, work to remain calm, especially when you are talking to your teen. Shouting and screaming can only add to your teen’s emotional upheaval. Dealing with the matter in a calm and controlled manner can help set the tone and provide a good example for your child.
– Do deal with your emotions. There will undoubtedly be a myriad of emotions running through you when you discover your teen’s cutting. Feelings of hurt and frustration can mingle with fear, shock and sadness. Take some time to deal with your personal emotions in healthy ways. Go for a walk, reach out to loved ones and friends or find an outlet for your emotions.
– Don’t punish or judge. As mentioned, some teens cut as a way to punish themselves. Do not add salt to an already festering wound. Rather, be gentle and reassuring. Reassure him or her of your love and your support. Do not judge or say things such as “I can’t believe you are doing this!” or “You are such an attention-seeker.”
– Do become informed about cutting. Find resources that can provide you with more information about the issue. There are a lot of books and blogs that discuss the issue and start learning to recognize the reasons for your teen’s problem.
– Don’t try to force him to stop. The act of cutting points to a deeper problem. Simply forbidding them to continue with cutting and taking away their access to sharp objects will not be enough. You need to lead him towards the path of inner healing so that he can grow to the point that he himself makes the decision to stop.
– Do provide your child with healthy outlets. Encourage your child to find the outlet that works for him as he seeks to effectively deal with his emotions. This can be through physical activities such as sports, exercise or dancing or something introspective such as writing or art.
– Do seek help. Seek counseling or treatment for your child, and for you as well. A professional can help equip you with the skills you need to deal with the issue. Another option is to enroll your child in a troubled teen program that provides a change in setting. For instance, a wilderness program or a troubled teen boarding school can place your child away from what can be, for him, an oppressing or stressful environment.

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