Understanding Self-Harm

Hurting oneself on purpose seems to be an odd thing to do, yet the practice is growing in popularity among today’s teens. There is a reason for this: self-harm is a “harmless” way to reduce feelings of anxiety and angst. Due to the ease of modern communication among teenagers, word has caught on that this strategy works. It is cheap, easy and always available – unlike other methods of stress relief like drinking alcohol, taking drugs or even accessing counseling services! As a result, this disorder is highly influenced by peer behavior; when children learn that others they know are hurting themselves, they often experiment with this stress relief strategy themselves. Unfortunately, self-harm is a very dysfunctional behavior that often causes feelings of deep shame, helplessness and inadequacy in much the same way as other addictive behaviors do. For instance, bingeing and purging (overeating large amounts of food and then vomitting or using laxatives) also temporarily dispels anxiety but then causes those same painful emotions of shame, helplessness and inadequacy. Some people feel that self-harm is a cry for attention or help. Parents are naturally distressed to learn that their child has been hurting him or herself. Nonetheless, there is some comfort in knowing that self-harming actions are not necessarily related to suicidality. The goal of sufferers is to inflict minor pain, release endorphins and communicate to family members. Suicidal teenagers don’t practice self-harm; they practice killing themselves and sometimes succeed.

What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is any action taken to cause oneself pain. Some people hit themselves – slapping their head, their face, their limbs or their body. Some people burn themselves. Some bite their skin or pick at it till it bleeds. Some use a sharp object to make small cuts on themselves – most commonly on their arms but also on other parts of the body.

Understanding the Paradox: Why Do People Do It?
When we are pain, such as when we experience a cut or burn, our brain releases natural pain relievers – endorphins – into the body. The chemicals associated with pain relief are also managers of mood. Hence, cutting and other methods of self-harm does bring some form of temporary relief to a person in distress. This temporary relief can get so addictive, that self-harm becomes a person’s first line of defense against emotions he or she can’t handle.

Experts also believe that there are psychological reasons why self-harm makes sense to the people who do it. Many times, cutting becomes some form of displacement. When emotional pain is too much to bear, “transforming” the emotional pain to physical pain makes it more manageable. Engaging in self-harm is also a way of validating that the pain one feels is real. There’s no evidence of inner distress, but seeing scars and burns are an acknowledgment that one is suffering.

In some cases, people engage in self-harm as an unconscious way of punishing themselves or a cry for attention. There are also situations when self-harm is an attempt to “feel something”; too much pain or trauma can numb one’s self. For people who engage in self-injury, self harm is better than feeling nothing.

Is Self-Harm a Suicide Attempt?
Not usually. However, people who self-harm are at additional risk for becoming suicidal. Therefore, parents need to take self-harming behaviors seriously.

While many who engage in self-harm report that they have no plans to kill themselves (they just want the temporary relief self-harm brings), they are always mentally unhealthy. Healthy people don’t hurt themselves. The mental health conditions typically associated with suicide attempts (e.g. clinical depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe anxiety) are often the same conditions that trigger self-harm. It is possible that self-harm activities are not suicidal in and of themselves, but if people are left alone to wallow in progressive mental illness, self-harming tendencies can progress to actual suicidality. Parents and mental health professionals are therefore recommended to take the cautious view and always treat the underlying emotions and mental health conditions of those who engage in self-harm.

What can Parents Do to Help a Child Who Engages in Self-Harm?
First off, be alert. Children and teens who self-harms take extra pains to hide what they are doing; you need to be a conscious and attentive parent to spot what’s going on. Symptoms of self-harm includes persistent wearing of clothing that hide common targets of self-harm such as the wrist, the upper arms and the chest; frequent “accidents” that explains injuries, a high need for privacy, implements like cutters, ropes or lighters in the bedroom, and symptoms of depression.

When you’ve confirmed that your child does engage in self-harm, it’s important that you raise the issue with him or her instead of hoping the behavior will go away on its own. Provide unconditional acceptance and a listening ear. And most importantly, arrange an appointment with a licensed mental health professional.

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