Teen self-injury is alarmingly common. Some recent studies report that one-third to one-half of teens have engaged in at least one episode of non-suicidal self-injury in their lifetime. Perhaps you’ve overheard your children talk about peers self-injuring; perhaps you have seen a story on the news or read an article; perhaps you are concerned that your child may be at risk. Because it is an increasingly common adolescent struggle, all adults who have a teen in their lives can benefit from an increased understanding of self-injury.
Self-injury often takes the form of intentionally cutting or burning skin, but can include a wide variety of other behaviors, including self-punching, pinching, and interfering with healing of existing wounds. These behaviors are not suicidal actions, and are not intended to end life, although suicidal thoughts are common in those who self-injure. This begs the question: why do some teens willfully hurt themselves?
The answer is complex, as self-harm can serve many functions for teens. Self-harming behavior was once thought to be exclusively associated with depression, eating disorders, mental retardation, and borderline personality disorders. We now know that many teens, even when they do not meet diagnostic criteria for any particular mental health disorder, are vulnerable to practicing self-harm. Non-suicidal self-injury is more common in kids who deal in emotional extremes: some are highly and intensely emotionally reactive; others are emotionally avoidant and not emotionally expressive.
It is developmentally typical for teens to struggle with emotion regulation; one of the “functions” of self-injury is as an attempt to distract from or reduce intensity of negative emotions and thoughts. Some teens that I’ve worked with report injuring themselves in order to “feel something” when experiencing emotional numbness, dissociation, or “emptiness.” Others harm themselves as “punishment” when they believe themselves deserving of pain. Self-injury is typically an act in response to emotional turmoil, and is not meant to manipulate or garner attention. Self-harm is an attempt to cope, although a potentially harmful and dangerous one.
Contrary to popular understanding, most teens who self-injure are not doing so to seek attention. Most self-injury is done in private, and kids often make significant effort to hide their behaviors from parents and peers. Many teens go to great lengths to hide their injuries. If you notice your child consistently wearing long sleeves or long pants when inappropriate for the weather or notice several unexplained cuts or bruises, it is important to ask your child directly if he or she has self-harmed.
How should you respond in you discover a teen in your life is harming themselves?
There is nothing that is beyond God’s capacity to heal and restore. There is hope and healing for teens who self-injure and their families, and it begins with shining light into the darkness.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster