Part I – Understanding Your Self-Harming Teen
My name is Erica, and I'm a new counselor here at Charlotte Women's Counseling. I interned here from 2021 to 2022 and am now back to work full-time! I specialize in working with adolescents ages 13-18 and young adults. I have availability starting in September 2022; feel free to book with me on our website!
As a parent you’ve invested countless time and effort into keeping your child safe and healthy. To find out that your child is intentionally hurting themselves is incredibly shocking and distressing, not to mention confusing. You may be overwhelmed and unsure of how to handle it. This three-part series addresses some of the questions you might be asking yourself so that you can understand and support your child through this difficult time. Part one will help you understand the motivation behind self-harm and why your child might have a difficult time stopping. Part two will help you open a conversation with your child about self-harm so that you can position yourself as their ally rather than their adversary. Part three will give you practical strategies and tools for helping your child to stop self-harming.
Why is my child hurting themselves?
People who self-harm typically do so to cope with overwhelming feelings, most often depression and anxiety. You may be thinking that adding pain to pain does not, by definition, reduce the amount of pain the person feels. But even when people engage in behaviors we don’t understand, it’s important to remember that the behavior is serving a purpose for them—otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. In the case of self-harm, there are two main purposes that might be served. First, when the body is injured, it releases chemicals called endorphins that calm us and soothe the pain the injury caused. Those endorphins also affect emotional pain. So, for the moments immediately following the injury, the overwhelming emotions decrease in intensity or briefly subside. If your child is often feeling upset, even those brief moments of relief might be difficult to give up.
Second, engaging in a behavior such as cutting gives the person an action to perform—something they can do about their pain. It could be that your child feels helpless and out of control, at the mercy of their negative feelings, and they just need something to do about it. That something might be serving a coping purpose, or it might be a reflection of how they feel about themselves. They may be punishing themselves for their perceived flaws because they have low self-esteem. They might even be punishing themselves for feeling so out of control, or for having emotions they’re ashamed of. This is why we often see self-harm first occur around the beginning of adolescence, when self-image becomes so important and is generally less stable.
Self-harm is unfortunately somewhat common. According to research, between 13 and 23 percent of adolescents in the United States engage in non-suicidal self-injury, usually beginning around the ages of 12-14. The most common method of self-injury is cutting, but other methods include scratching/picking, burning, hitting, or even inserting sharp objects into the skin or nails. It’s likely that the data we have on self-harm is an underestimation due to people not reporting the behavior when it does happen, because there is a huge amount of stigma surrounding self-harm. People generally don’t talk about it! When they do, it’s usually in a judgmental way that prevents greater understanding, and understanding is such an important first step to helping. If you’re wanting to help your self-harming child, approach their pain with curiosity and not judgment—easier said than done with all of the strong feelings that come up, I know, but you will see that it has a transformative effect.