The teenager who is self-harming is usually embarrassed and ashamed about it, and will go to great lengths to hide any cuts, burn marks or bruises on their skin.
With the almost tropical climate and relaxed lifestyle here on the Gold Coast, it tends to be very obvious if they insist on wearing long sleeves, pants and the like, no matter what the weather.
However they may also use strategically placed bangles or other jewellery, or doodle on their arms or legs to disguise any marks.
Other signs may include:
problems in their friendships and relationships – bullying, break ups, or simply isolating themselves;
refusing to go swimming or visit the beach;
withdrawing from activities they previously enjoyed;
depression, irritation and anger;
their schoolwork begins to suffer.
What is Self-Harm?
According to the Sane Australia website, self-harm is:
“any behaviour which involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself — usually as an extreme way of trying to cope with distressing or painful feelings.”
Generally when we refer to self-harming in teenagers, we are talking about intentional cutting, burning or hitting. However self-harm can take many forms, such as abusing drugs and alcohol, deliberately placing oneself in dangerous situations, binge eating or starvation (which means eating disorders may be considered a form of self-harm).
While it seems to be more common in teenagers – after all, these are the peak years for distressing and painful feelings! – adults and parents also self-harm.
Why do Teens Self-Harm?
When asked why they have turned to self-harming, teenagers usually respond with something along the lines of:
I wanted to feel something (many teens report feeling numb);
It was a way of punishing myself for … (complete with whatever their perceived failing might be);
To let the pain out.
What they may not be able to articulate, is that the self-harming behaviour is a way for them to:
distract themselves from negative or traumatic thoughts or memories;
rebel against others eg their parents or school;
have some control over themselves and their bodies, when everything else seems to be in chaos;
make a non-verbal cry for help.
“My Teenager was Self-Harming”
Mother of two Angela* was horrified when she noticed cuts on her daughter’s arms:
“It was exam week, and her boyfriend had dumped her only a week or so before - I was so angry at him, it was terrible timing!
I noticed the scabs on her arms as she was getting out of the car for school one morning. I tried to grab her arm and ask about them, but she was extremely embarrassed and pulled away quickly and walked off.
I knew her best friend had been cutting the top of her legs – my daughter had told me about it, and I’d seen it myself because when she sat down her skirt would sometimes ride up. But in this girl’s case it was understandable – her parents had been through a messy divorce and not long afterwards her father had taken his own life.
Thankfully I was able to talk calmly with my daughter about it later that day, and she confessed that she’d wanted to try it to see if it helped with her feelings of devastation over her boyfriend.
I kept a discreet but close eye on her after that, but as far as I’m aware she never self-harmed again. However it made me realise it could happen to anybody, no matter how much love or support they received from their family.”
The teenage years are a time of experimentation, so Angela’s daughter’s experience is not altogether surprising. However Angela was fortunate that self-harming didn’t become a habit for her daughter.
For parents with ongoing concerns about their teenager’s self-harming, it is important to seek professional help.
Therapy can help your teenager to:
understand why they are self-harming;
address any deep-seated issues or trauma which may be behind the behaviour;
find healthier and more helpful ways of dealing with their painful feelings, thoughts or memories;
build their self-esteem.
At some point you as the parent may be invited to join in a session or two.
Counselling may also be helpful for parents to not only better support their teenager, but also to deal with the shock of realising their child has been self-harming.
If you are concerned that your teenager is self-harming, you are welcome to make an appointment with a psychologist at our Southport clinic direct by calling (07) 5527 0123 or booking online. If you wish to access Medicare rebates, you will however need to visit your GP for a referral first.