Self-injury is the deliberate, intentional damage to one’s body without the desire to die. This behavior frequently begins between the ages of 11 and 14, and it is estimated that 14 to 18 percent of high school students have engaged in this behavior at least once. Although this behavior is not a desire to die, if left untreated there is a high correlation with suicide.
When emotions don’t get expressed in a healthy way, tension builds up — sometimes to a point where it seems almost unbearable. Self-injury is an attempt to relieve that extreme tension or a way to feel in control. These marks are outward signs of inward pain. Self-injury is sometimes called “the scream on the skin” or “a bright red cry for help”.
Cutting, burning, or other forms of self-injury are ways very sensitive teens may try to cope with the stress of school, home, or relationships with their peers. These adolescents are often self-critical, lack self-esteem, and may also suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar, trauma or substance abuse.
Teens seldom use self-injury in order to get attention, avoid activities they dislike, or to punish themselves. Most teens who self-harm are desperate for relief from intensely bad feelings, and often report feeling calmer afterward; in some cases, these teens feel numb, and they cut or burn themselves in order to feel something.
Self-injury is a serious concern for families and schools; there is the unintentional risk of losing too much blood or getting an infection, but there is also the possibility that cutting will become a habit or an addiction. It is important to engage your child in comprehensive treatment as soon as possible; with the right treatment, the majority of teens go on to live happy, healthy lives.
How You Can Help
- If you notice any form of self-injury (cutting, burning, etc.), keep the lines of communication open by listening and validating your teen’s feelings.
- Don’t overreact. Anger, shame, or guilt will not lead to healing and may force the behavior to “go underground,” rather than stopping.
- Make an appointment for a mental health assessment as soon as possible to determine whether the self-injury is an attempt to manage strong emotions or is a desire to commit suicide.
- Continue treatment with a therapist who is highly trained in treating adolescents with self-injurious behavior.
- Successful treatment for self-injury includes:
- Individual therapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral) or DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) to improve emotional awareness and regulation
- Group therapy to improve social and emotional coping skills
- Family skills training and family therapy.