By Dore Quinn, M.Ed., LPC
As a Licensed Professional Counselor, it seems there has been an increase recently of parents in my office upon discovering their child has been self-harming. Self-harming is a topic that can be very uncomfortable for parents and children to address, but necessary for the emotional and physical health of our children.
Self-harming can occur in several different ways such as cutting one’s skin, scratching, burning (either with cigarettes or an ice/salt combination), pulling one’s hair, biting self, or picking at sores thus not allowing the sores to heal. The most common forms of self- harm that I have observed in private practice is cutting and /or scratching. For the purposes of this blog, I will mainly address cutting and scratching.
There are several reasons why a person may self-harm.
- The person has very strong emotions and doesn’t know how to cope with them, thus they cut so he/she can focus on the physical pain rather than the emotional pain.
- The person has ignored emotions to the point where he/she feels dead inside and cuts in order to feel something.
- The person “enjoys” the rush of adrenaline that often accompanies injury to the body.
- The person feels the need to punish self.
According to self-report of the children I have worked with, most of them cite the first reason as their reason for engaging in self-harm. Bad things happen in life, and as humans, we find ways of self-soothing during hard times much as a baby who sucks his thumb in order to feel better. Children who self-harm have picked a method of self-soothing that happens to be injurious rather than helpful.
Self-harming usually is inflicted upon the body either on the arms, upper thighs, stomach, or breasts.
Tools of choice in self-harming usually consists of:
- Pins (safety and straight)
- Anything else sharp
What are some indicators that a teen may be self-harming?
- Wearing long sleeves, hoodies, sweatshirts, or jackets when it is warm outside.
- Wearing multiple bracelets on one or both arms (covering up injuries).
- Wearing sweatbands around wrists (it’s not in fashion….)
- Association with one or more friends who also self-harm.
Self-harming is a private activity, thus the parents usually are the last to know. Often it is discovered because the child’s friend discovers the self-harming and reports it to either a school counselor or his or her own parent who then informs the parent of the child who is self-harming. Parents, fight the urge to feel guilt if your child self-harms; it isn’t useful! At this stage, getting help is the main goal, not taking on guilt.
Be aware that many children will initially deny self-harming (to friends, siblings, and parents) and try to explain away current wounds. I have heard children say that they have skin conditions, the cat scratched them, a bottle broke on them, etc. If you suspect your child is self-harming, then assume that you are right and get professional help.
All the children and teens I have worked with admitted self-harming during the first session and actually were relieved to be getting help.
If a child is discovered to be self-harming, it is extremely important for that teen to receive professional help.
There are several things that I will usually do with a teen during counseling:
- I usually begin by explaining the role that emotions play in healthy living and the importance of being aware of emotions and identifying them.
- Identify which emotions the teen avoids and why he or she avoids feeling that emotion.
- Learn short-term alternatives to cutting such as snapping self with a rubber band or using ice-cubes instead of razors.
- We discuss alternatives to self-harming and learn healthy coping skills other than cutting.
- Learn relaxation and deep-breathing exercises.
- Learn triggers that lead to self-harming (such as family drama, failing a class, etc.).
- Identify any perfectionistic tendencies the teen may have.
- Work to identify negative views the teen may have about self and work to neutralize those negative thoughts.
- Identify the teen’s strengths and how to utilize those strengths to end self-harming behaviors.
A part of self-harming that parents don’t often think about is how to help the teen address questions that other people may have when scars are observed and commented on. First off, I tell teens that making personal comments about someone’s body is considered in our culture to be rude. Therefore, they are not obligated to address comments or questions by other kids if they choose not to. If they do choose to address comments or questions, I advise them to view their scars as part of their journey to learn healthy living skills and not something of which they need to be ashamed. In a practical sense, I tell them to answer by saying, “Oh that…I used to self-harm, but I don’t anymore. I’m in a good place now.”
Parents also need to be prepared to respond when their child tells them they know of someone who is self-harming. It can be scary and bewildering to many children when they discover someone they know is self-harming. Parents, if your child tells you that they know someone who is self-harming, it is a good idea to get the name of the child and report it to either the parent of that child (if you know the parent) or the school counselor. It can be reported anonymously. Don’t be afraid to discuss self-harming with your child. Discussing it is not going to make your child want to do it, but will help your child understand something that can be confusing and scary. Help your child understand the importance of not ridiculing or harassing someone who self-harms. Help your child understand the importance of that person getting help. Help your child learn to view that person as someone who is in pain and not as weird or a “loser.”
With professional help, self-harming behavior can be overcome! I have seen many teens learn healthy coping skills and end self-harming behaviors. It has been rewarding to watch a teen grow, develop a healthy self-esteem and gain a positive outlook on life!
If you would like Dore to come talk to your group or find out more about Kaleidoscope Counseling please call 214-499-0396
Dore is a licensed professional counselor. She earned both her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and her Master of Education in Counseling from the University of North Texas. Dore has experience working with individuals, couples, adolescents, groups, children and families. She works with those who are striving to overcome depression, anxiety, effects of sexual and physical abuse, grief, marital and parenting issues.