Self-Harm: What Every Parent Should Know

For many parents, the concept of self-harm is strange and confusing.  You may feel helpless and anxious about the fact that your daughter is engaging in this behavior. Estimates show that approximately one in every 200 teens between the ages of 13 and 19 cut themselves on a regular basis. This isn’t the only type of self-harm, however.

Understanding Self Harm in Teenagers

Self-harm, also referred to as nonsuicidal self-injury, and self-abuse, can include a variety of negative behaviors such as cutting, burning, picking, or scratching at the skin. The inflicted pain is intentional and is predominately used by youth as a coping mechanism during times of stress. Self-harm is not used by most teens as a suicide attempt.

When your daughter feels anxious, numb or has depressive or self-loathing thoughts, she may use self-inflicted pain to control them. The physical act of pain interrupts the current feelings and provides a diversion —one that can easily be controlled. Pain (even self inflicted pain) leads to the the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce an individual’s perception of pain and acts similarly to drugs such as morphine and other opiates.

Because self inflicted pain does trigger the brain to release endorphins, self harm can easily become an addictive behavior. Any behavior that is connected to our reward system has the ability to become an “go to behavior” or habit, especially if a teen doesn’t have other coping skills or better alternatives.

Many teens don’t realize there are healthier ways of coping with stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, so they turn again and again to self-harm as the solution to their problems. If you’re worried your daughter may be hurting herself, here’s what you need to know.

Know How to Identify Self Harm

Most self-injury is done privately. While a healthy, happy teen may pull away and require more privacy as she becomes more independent from you (and more connected to her friends), she shouldn’t become withdrawn physically or emotionally for long periods of time. Isolation or extended privacy is always a cause for concern.
Of course, isolation is not the only sign, and may not be a sign at all. Some teens keep up the outward appearance of happiness even when they are going through inner turmoil.
Look for other signs, like:

  • – Cuts or burn marks on her abdomen, legs or arms
  • – Dressing in inappropriate clothing for the weather (such as long sleeves during warm weather)
  • – Finding sharp objects in her bedroom or purse (knives, razors, scissors)

How to Talk to Your Teen About Self Harm

If you’ve discovered your child is engaging in self-harm, be open and honest about it. Talk to her, and create a safe, non-judgmental space for her to talk to you about her feelings. This will probably not eliminate the self-harming behaviors, but it will help her know that you are there to help, love and support her.

Definitely avoid yelling, ultimatums, threats, punishment and lecturing if possible. This can trigger more stress and result in a deeper cycle of unhealthy behavior.

Self Harm is a Symptom 

Simply telling your daughter to stop harming herself will not work. Self harm is more of a symptom then a problem. Self harm is evidence that something deeper is going on. This may be as simple as a lack of coping skills and new types of stress from grades, feeling overwhelmed, or anxiety about friendships. Self harm could also be linked to other mental health issues or childhood trauma. The best alternative is to work with your daughter to develop healthier coping strategies and to heal the problem at it’s core.

When to Seek Professional Help for Self Harm

Troubled teens dealing with mental health problems often need a safe place where they can decompress, heal and discover new ways to cope with stress and anxiety. Our therapeutic boarding school is an excellent choice for young girls who have difficulty with self-worth, low self-esteem and other symptoms like anxiety and depression. Using our concept of Strong Relationality, Greenbrier Academy can help your daughter understand the past relational experiences that led to her current feelings and help her develop a new, positive relational belief system that will help her love herself and empower her for an abundant life!

If you are ready to find out more about Greenbrier Academy and how we have helped hundreds of families become the healthiest version of themselves, give us a call today.

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