Healing The Scars Of Self‑Harm
Adolescence is a period of increased stress for young people, owing to the many physical and social changes experienced around this time of life. Often, adolescents experience similar levels of stress as adults, despite not having the coping mechanisms that come with maturity. This often results in young people using whatever coping strategies they have at their disposal – not all of which involve healthy actions. Self harm is one such ineffective coping mechanism. Self harm, or, according to a 2001 report in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, “the deliberate, direct destruction or alteration of body tissue without conscious suicidal intent, but resulting in injury severe enough for tissue damage to occur,” is a tactic for alleviating intense emotional distress. Self harming behavior can include:
- Surface-level cutting
- Scratching or pinching
- Interfering with healing
- Hair pulling
- Ingesting poisonous substances
What Does Self Harm Mean?
Teens who self-harm often attempt to conceal the above behaviour, generally by damaging the skin of their arms, thighs, wrists, torso, or other parts of the body that are easily hidden. Regardless of the specific type of injury, self-harm is understood to provide relief from distress. It’s not a healthy way of dealing with emotional pain, but for the young person – both boys and girls – it may appear to be the only way to cope. These adolescents aren’t generally suicidal; they’re simply looking for an outlet for turbulent emotions. Self-harm is usually done when the person is alone because, at some level, he or she knows the action is somehow ‘wrong.’ Thus, shortly after the experience of relief, come feelings of guilt or shame.
What You Can Do As A Parent
The first thing parents can do is be aware. Knowing the signs of self-harm means you can identify them if your own child displays them. They include:
- The presence of unexplained or clustered cuts, bruises, burns, or other scars or marks on the body
- Wearing bandages
- Wearing wrist bands or dressing in attire that is inappropriate for the season, such as long shirts or long pants during hot weather
- Not participating in events, like swimming, that require less body coverage
- Stocking up on razor blades or other cutting implements
- Being distant, withdrawn, or exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety
- Feelings of shame or worthlessness
If you notice one or more of the above behaviors in your child, the solution isn’t direct confrontation. Do not force talk of self harm or force your child to stop self harming; this could add to the stress that is causing the act of self-harm to begin with. Also, self harming behavior may develop over time as a coping mechanism, and giving it up suddenly may be difficult for your child.
Instead, sit with your child on a regular basis to talk about what is going on in his or her life. If the responses are brief, it might be a good idea to try talking while doing another activity your child enjoys. Often, young people confide more easily when the pressure to share is off or disguised as another activity. It may be difficult to come to terms with your child’s self harming, but it is important to put your own feelings aside and build open communication, comfort and trust so your child feels safe to talk about his problems.
However, don’t be upset if your child chooses not to confide immediately. You may need to try addressing the subject indirectly. Mention – in a loving, non-confrontational way – that you have noticed some marks on her body and would like to know what she is going through. Asking about concerns and stressors – instead of questions about why your child self-harms – may make him more comfortable confiding and, ultimately, be more useful toward solving the root problem that is causing the behaviour.
If you find your child with an injury, try to remain calm. Likely, your child will also be scared, and your steady acceptance of the situation and prompt response will help to ease her own fear. Treat her wound calmly and get her the medical help she needs as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, whether talking with your child or treating a wound, keep reassuring your child that you love him and will help get him through his troubling situation.
When Counseling Can Help
Sometimes, despite our best efforts as parents, what we do is not enough. Children may not want to talk to parents about their self-harming for fear of disapproval, or punishment. At such a time, a reassurance of your love would be helpful, along with getting your child the help he or she needs from skilled professionals.
Counselling is a safe, confidential space for your child to talk about his or her concerns. A professional with whom your child does not have a personal relationship can provide a non-judgmental environment for him to discover what is at the bottom of his self harming behavior and identify new and healthier coping strategies. Seeking counselling and treatment for self harm isn’t an admission of defeat – it’s an act of love and support, which can go a long way toward healing your child’s wounds, both physically and psychologically.