7 Ways to Help a Teenager Who Self-Harms
This article aims to provide teenager self-harm help. Self-injury in teenagers might come in the form of cutting or burning oneself, but it can also involve excessive drinking, drug use or even risky sexual behaviours. You may know someone who has been trying to deal with the emotional pain from their lives. Maybe they have feelings that are difficult to manage, or you have a teenager who has been self-harming. Self-harm is the act of inflicting pain to cope with overwhelming emotions and emotional distress. Adults as well as children and young people self-harm.
Teens who harm themselves often feel alone, isolated and misunderstood. They may be afraid of losing friends or being judged by others. In addition, they may worry that talking about their feelings will make them appear “weak”. Therefore, it is vital to show your teenager that other people care about them and can help them through such behaviour.
Injury of self affects more individuals than we might think. However, if a young person is self-harming, they are not alone; you can find plenty of help for the young person. With the proper support, most young people can completely recover and avoid serious injuries. With the appropriate support, children and young people can heal.
What is self-harm? a.k.a. non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).
Deliberate self-inflicted injury is a behavioural pattern characterised by deliberately harming oneself. It is not fully understood what causes people to engage in these behaviours; however, it is linked with depression and mental health issues.
People who harm themselves may feel that they are punishing themselves for their perceived faults. These young people often have thoughts about suicide and see self-harm to deal with difficult emotions.
Why do people self-harm?
There are many reasons why young people self-harm. These behaviours can be a coping mechanism for stress, emotional difficulties, or even feelings of emptiness. This is not to say that the reason is always the same as others, as everyone has their reasons.
The following are some reasons why teenagers may self-harm:
They feel unworthy
Teenagers who suffer from low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness can turn to self-harming behaviours as a way to regain control over their lives. This type of behaviour allows them to take power, even if it’s in the form of physical pain.
They feel unable to express themselves in a different way
For some teenagers, their emotions are so powerful that it becomes impossible to deal with them. They may believe that they cannot turn to anyone else to express their feelings, so self-injury becomes the only option available.
Teenagers who have experienced neglect or abandonment.
Self-harm may be used to communicate their feelings of loneliness or emptiness before they are even aware that these feelings exist.
It makes them feel alive.
Some teenagers might turn to NSSI behaviours when they have isolated themselves from everyone around them. These young people might feel like others do not appreciate them, so they begin to harm themselves to punish themselves or remind themselves that they are still alive.
They feel numb
For some people who self-harm, this is the only way they can feel anything at all. It’s as if their bodies and minds just shut down to prevent them from feeling emotions or even pain. This type of behaviour may be caused by an underlying mental health problem such as depression or an anxiety disorder.
They feel like they do not belong.
Teenagers who experience bullying and continue to be rejected by their peers might begin to injure themselves to feel like they can gain some control over an underlying problem in their lives. This type of self-harm is usually a coping mechanism for feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.
It’s also common among teenagers who have been sexually abused or raped.
They want to hurt themselves. For some teenagers, the idea of NSSI is appealing because it allows them to punish themselves when they do something “wrong.” In addition, feelings of guilt and shame may cause this behaviour in response to what has happened in their lives.
They don’t want to commit suicide.
Some teenagers turn to NSSIs because they want to hurt themselves without actually committing suicide. These teenagers may harm themselves to feel alive or release any negative emotions they may be experiencing. For example, teenagers might cut their arms with a knife to release anger.
How common is self-harm?
There is no single answer. You’ll likely find different responses depending on what resources you look at, who is doing the research, and which country you’re in. However, there are some important points that most studies agree on.
The Guardian (2021) article states: ‘Self-harm among young children in UK [has doubled] in six years’.
Most NSSI’s occurs amongst young people. It is estimated that as many as one in 12 adolescents may injure themselves. However, not all of these will go on to develop the problems associated with this behaviour. The most common age for self-harming is 15, and girls are more likely than boys to begin self-harming at an early age. NSSI is more common in developed countries.
A statistic to note is that some research suggests that the number of young people who self-harm may have increased over time. For example, one study, ‘Deliberate self-harm in adolescents in Oxford, 1985–1995’, found an increase of 28·1% overall’. Further, Benenden Health states: ‘more than one-third of 16 to 25 year-olds had intentionally harmed their bodies at some point.’
It’s also important to note that not all these young people will have ongoing difficulties with their self-harming. But, unfortunately, we don’t yet have long-term follow up studies of young people who self-harm, so we cannot know the extent to which the behaviour is a warning sign for more serious mental health problems in later life.
In summary, it is not clear from current research if there has been an increase or decrease in self-harming behaviour amongst young people, but it is clear that there are wide-ranging views on the issue.
What treatments apart from medication can be helpful?
Other treatments can be helpful in self-destructive behaviours. It’s essential to find the appropriate treatment that works best for the teenager.
- Family therapy is beneficial for teens who feel ashamed of their behaviour and want to hide it from others.
- Support groups are an excellent choice for teenagers who want to talk to people with shared experiences or who need help to meet the demands of education, work, and social life.
- Peer counselling might be appropriate when self-harming behaviours are related to abuse by peers or adults. What other treatments apart from medication can be helpful?
- Therapeutic photography is a type of photography that can be used as a form of treatment for young people who are dealing with emotional wellbeing problems. Check out my post: Therapeutic Photography – 9 beginner tips.
Self-harm is a coping mechanism that can deal with stress, anger and other challenging emotions. However, NSSI behaviour should never be ignored or dismissed as it can lead to more severe problems.
If you notice your teenager engaging in NSSI behaviours like cutting themselves, for example, make sure they get help from someone qualified who knows how to address this issue appropriately. You may also want to speak to their school counsellor about what options are available.
Counselling can help teenagers who self-harm.
In many cases, self-harming is a young persons’ way of drawing attention to themselves and their needs. In these instances, counselling can help them find other ways to communicate their needs or motivate them to adopt different coping strategies. In addition, it may help to identify which complicated feelings lead to the urge to self-harm.
Counselling can also help children and young people explore their feelings and emotions and enable them to cope.
In addition, counselling helps teenagers avoid other negative behaviours such as drug or alcohol abuse. For example, teens who use NSSI’s are three times more likely to misuse drugs. In contrast, 70% of all people who use drugs began drinking alcohol before the age of 14 (Young People’s Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS).
Finally, counselling can help young people realise that they are not alone in their struggles and that there is a support network waiting for them to reach out for confidential advice and support. Early professional help can also avoid a full-blown mental health crisis or worse.
What are risk factors for self-harm?
There are many risk factors for self-harm. For example,
- if a teenager has mood swings,
- is feeling isolated and unloved,
- they’re self-critical,
- they feel unworthy, or
- have low self-esteem,
- they could have suffered abuse or bullying,
- be dealing with the death of someone close to them,
- increased pressure at school.
These risk factors can drive teenagers to self-harm.
Self-harming doesn’t solve anything, and so they keep on doing it.
There are three main types of self-harm:
- Cutting: Cutting means scratching the surface of your skin with a sharp object, usually a knife or razor blades. Cutting is the most common form of NSSI.
- It can also include purposely burning themself on a stove or the coils of an electric burner.
- Hitting themself or punching things like walls, pillows, furniture or other objects until they feel better.
- Poking their skin with pencils, pens, sticks or other sharp objects to leave marks.
There are other ways, such as:
- dangerous eating habits,
- drug abuse,
- risky sexual behaviour,
- binge drinking,
Even though it’s not technically NSSI, some people take pills that aren’t prescribed to them or take too many of their prescribed meds as a way of dealing with powerful feelings and emotions. If you’re taking medicine in this way, it might seem like it’s helping you, but it isn’t. If a young person has misused medication, seek medical attention immediately.
Breaking down the myths about self-harm.
There are several myths about self-harm, such as it being a suicide attempt or just for attention. These are misconceptions and don’t represent reality.
What it is:
- A way for some individuals to deal with overwhelming emotions or difficult feelings.
- Some people punish themselves.
- Others do it to express a feeling they don’t know how to say in words.
- Some do it to tell the world that something is wrong.
What it isn’t:
- A suicide attempt.
- A cry for attention.
If a young person is self-harming, they need help and support – they are not bad or weird.
Some warning signs a teenager might be self-harming.
- Marks and unexplained cuts on wrists, arms or legs.
- Frequent injuries in the form of cuts and bruises.
- Bloodstained clothing or tissues when they’re not suffering from period pain.
- Keeping a first aid kit in their room or making plans for situations where they can cut themselves.
- Using more makeup on some regions of their body.
- Hurting themselves during times when they’re upset or not feeling well.
- Talking about self-harm or giving clues that they’re hurting themselves. This can be verbal, through what they write and in pictures and videos on social media sites.
- It can be something that they turn to when other things go wrong in their life or circumstances.
- Noticing that a teenager is wearing long sleeves in the summer, even though it’s hot enough to wear T-shirts, can be a subtle sign that they’re hurting themselves.
Teenagers are usually secretive about such behaviour.
Finding help for a teenager who is self-harming.
There are many ways to find help, including:
- Contacting a helpline such as Childline 0800 1111 or The Samaritans 116 123.
- Going to your local GP and explaining what’s going on with the teenager.
- Teenager counselling.
- Teenager support groups.
Seek medical attention for injuries or suicidal thoughts immediately.
How to talk to your teenager about self-harm.
It’s crucial that you do not make the teenager feel judged or that they are annoying you. Instead, please give them the option of talking about it with you.
If they don’t want to talk about it, it is essential that you:
- make them feel safe and show that you are there for them without judgement or criticism,
- let the teenager know you won’t be angry if they choose not to talk,
- ask the teenager what they would like their support to look like,
- tell them that you’re always available,
- say to the teenager that it is not their fault and that they are loved,
How to help a teenager to stop self-harming.
Stay calm. It will not always be easy to talk about what is happening, but it could help your young person recover from their problems. Here are 7 practical ways you can help a young person.
1. Find out how often your teenager injures themself.
The first step you can take is to find out how often your young person is self-harming. When this happens frequently, the teenager will likely need more support.
2. Get them professional help if necessary.
Sometimes young people who regularly self-harm may be struggling with their issues and will benefit from professional help. Speak to your teenager about this possibility if you think it may be an option for them.
3. Be there when they need someone to talk to.
If your young person self-harms, make sure you are always available when they feel like talking. Make sure you remain calm in the conversation and let them know that you want to listen without judgment or blame.
4. Let them talk about their self-harm in their own time.
They may not readily want to open up to you, so try not to push them into doing it. It is not about attention-grabbing. Instead, it’s a way of temporarily dealing with overwhelming emotions or complicated feelings.
5. Find out how they are feeling.
Keep calm and ask. Self-harming for young people is usually a symptom of some other problems, so it will be helpful if you find out what issues your teen may be keeping hidden. For example, they may be feeling anxious, unhappy or even bored. It would be worth speaking to the young person about these feelings as it might help you identify what drives your teen to turn to NSSI’s.
6. Make sure they understand that self-harm is not a permanent solution.
Self-harming isn’t going to deal with their problems forever and can often make them worse. Let them know that you are aware of this if they ever seem reluctant to give it up. Even though it might appear very difficult to stop, it will be possible with the proper support.
7. Encourage your teenager to speak out about their feelings.
If there’s a chance your teen is harming themself, they must understand that many others have been through the same thing. Therefore, it will be a positive step to encourage your teenager to speak out about their feelings.
Young people can completely recover from this as long as they receive the right help. In some cases, self-harm is a symptom of other issues that need treatment to prevent it from continuing. Teenagers need to know they are not alone and there is plenty of help out there.
It is not about suicide or attention-grabbing.
It is not an attempt at suicide or wanting attention, but rather a way to deal with overwhelming feelings, for example, depression.
It’s possible to live life without self-injury.
Thanks for reading. I hope that this article has been helpful to you or someone who might know a teenager who is self-harming. If you want help with any of the topics covered in this blog post, please feel free to contact me at billysmithcounselling.com or call 01209 832826.
This article is not intended as a substitution for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We cannot be held responsible for any damage or detrimental effects that may arise from any information or suggestions within this article. Please see your doctor if you’re in any way concerned about self harm.