March is Self Harm Awareness Month. What do parents need to know about self harm?
First, it's not uncommon. An estimated 13-23% percent of teens (1) engage in self-harm, across all genders and races. Although it is more prevalent in girls, it also affects boys. It is considered a coping mechanism for difficult experiences, and can encompass practices like cutting, burning, hair pulling, scratching, bone breaking, bruising, or swallowing dangerous substances.
A teen who self harms, isn't necessarily suicidal. Adolescents don't equate their desire to cut with a desire to kill themselves, but both are indicative of depression, and so there is a correlation between the two, and self harm is considered a primary risk factor for suicide.
If you discover your child is self harming, it is important not to express anger or outrage. This will only aggravate the feelings of shame and disgust your teen already harbors. Be empathetic. Theresa Wiseman outlined 4 qualities of empathy after studying empathetic professions. These are: recognizing that the perspective of another feels true to them, refraining from judgement, acknowledging whatever emotion your audience feels and communicating this knowledge. Try telling your teen, "I'm glad you told me that you are hurting yourself. I am so sorry you feel so badly. You are not alone."
Be mindful that responses don't often improve situation, but connections do. In one study, a little over a third of participants eventually stopped self harming because of important relationships. (2)
All teens who have hurt themselves need to have their depression evaluated professionally so that they can receive appropriate care. Therapy can help teens learn about self harm, and provide them with new coping mechanisms. Data suggests that most teens will stop self harming as they learn how to regulate their emotions and build self awareness. (2)
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If you live in Northwest Arkansas, and want your teen assessed, you can contact the Teen Action and Service Center. TASC provides sliding scale therapeutic services for adolescents.