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Posted: Mar 14, 2006 11:02

SELF-HARMING BEHAVIORS

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What They Mean And What You Can Do
By: Nicole Pray, PhD
Child and Family Counseling Center, PLLC.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
970-945-9841

Cutting and self-harm behaviors are showing up more and more among adolescents. As a private practice psychologist, I see plenty of parents who are surprised at the kind of secrets their teenager has been keeping from them. If your child shows signs of prolonged depressed mood, anxiety or repeated temper outbursts, there is a chance they could be coping with their emotions in harmful and non-productive ways. Alcohol and substance abuse are among these less-effective coping tools. Self-harm and cutting behaviors represent another way that individuals cope, and more and more teens are resorting to self-harm as a means of dealing with stress. Parents may not even know when their teen is cutting. Evidence of self-mutilation may be kept hidden from view…it may be concealed under long sleeves or pants. In fact, most parents of the adolescents I've seen were unaware of their son or daughter's self-harm compulsions before coming to therapy. It is important for parents to learn more about what self-harm means so they can ask the right questions and become more attuned to their child's ways of coping with distress.

Self-harming behaviors result when an individual's distress becomes so intolerable that they lack other ways to effectively manage their feelings. Self-harm behaviors can take many different forms, including the following more common examples:

  • Self-cutting (this can occur with a small sharp object, often a razor, but sometimes a paper clip or a knife is used.

  • Burning

  • Body piercing (this one has become more visible in the culture and has been seen as a form of habitual self-harm)

  • Head Banging (seen more often in early childhood)


When an individual self-harms, it can represent many things. For example, when an adolescent cuts on his/ her arm as a way to control the extreme mood swings they feel, it can be a form of self-soothing. Depressed individuals often feel intense guilt for the bad things that happen around them, and because they feel as if they've caused these bad things to happen, they may use self-harm as a means of punishing themselves. Self-harm can also represent a way to interrupt the numbness, or emotional disconnection that some people feel in response to distress. This might be like "waking up" from what feels like surreal surroundings. Another way self-harm arises is when individuals are trying to communicate unmet needs or unexpressed feelings with others, possibly through an angry gesture of self-mutilation. Feeling powerless, the cutting may represent a way to communicate the person's fury or hurt. Adolescents will say they feel compelled to perform the behavior in order to achieve the desired result, and it is often difficult or impossible to resist their compulsion.

Discovering the purpose of self-harm behaviors is important, and parents can ask their teenager in curious, non-judgmental ways, what the behaviors do for their child. Do they provide a sense of relief? Is there pain associated with the behavior? Does it seem to be a way to address things they feel bad about? Punishing your child or restricting privileges in response to self-mutilation is never effective and can make the problem worse.

Self-harm can and does become quite habitual in many cases, and treatment is often needed to reduce and eliminate this addicting and destructive behavior. Therapists who understand the self-harming behaviors will inquire about several areas of the child's life. There may be something shameful that the child feels unable to talk about or share with parents. Many people who use self-harming behaviors have histories of abuse or molestation in childhood. Others have seen a friend use the behaviors to cope with distress, and so have tried or experimented with it themselves.

Self-harm behaviors are not the same as suicidal behaviors. In fact, many individuals who cut say they do so because it helps to temporarily stop the distress. In this way, they self-mutilate as a way to stop from doing something worse. However, self-mutilators do exhibit many of the same feelings of hopelessness, shame and self-hatred as individuals considering suicide and should be carefully screened for suicidal risk. Repeated self-mutilation is a sign your child needs professional help and many therapists can address this addictive pattern effectively. If you seek a therapist, ask to be educated about the self-harming behaviors, what signs to look for and how to intervene if it occurs again. Family members can create a safe atmosphere by reacting calmly and offering a non-judgmental place to talk about it. A therapist can help family members do this effectively and can begin to bridge the gap in communication between you and your child.

About The Author:
Nicole Pray, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in Glenwood Springs, CO. She has worked extensively with families and adolescents, providing psychotherapy and evaluation services, training and supervising other clinicians, and helping parents find appropriate programs for their adolescents.



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