The idea that injuring oneself might help you feel better appears to be a paradox. According to Matthew Nock, chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, this is exactly what motivates skin cutting and other types of self-harm among teenagers.
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of cutting or are concerned about red signs. Here are the fundamentals of what to know and how to respond if you are worried about this type of self-harm.
What exactly is self-harm?
“Self-harm is the intentional destruction of body tissue in the absence of any intent to die,” explains Nock, who treats self-injury behaviors in children and young adults. “It usually occurs on the arms and takes the form of cutting with a sharp object, such as a razor blade, pencil, or pocket knife.” It might also entail burning the skin or introducing items such as paper clips beneath the skin.”
How many teens engage in self-harm?
According to the American Psychological Association, 17% of youth have attempted suicide at least once.
Many begin between the ages of 12 and 14, when puberty may strike a one-two punch: a new mental health illness along with increased risk-taking behaviors, adds Nock.
What motivates some teenagers to cut?
According to Nock, cutting appears to affect all teenage genders equally. But what variables influence adolescent behavior? Teens who cut themselves may be more likely to use drugs or alcohol, in addition to having sadness, anxiety, or other mental health difficulties.
According to 2022 research on Child and Adolescent Mental Health, additional significant variables include family troubles, school or career obstacles, and strained friendships. According to Nock, cutting appears to have three major components: psychological, biological, and societal.
“Kids who engage in self-injury have difficulty tolerating emotional distress and are more likely to try to escape from those feelings,” he adds. “It’s possible that their pain demands attention, and cutting themselves when they’re upset focuses on their physical pain while reducing their psychological pain.”
The feeling of comfort or release that follows cutting promotes the behavior, encouraging youngsters to cut themselves again. “An adult who is upset may drink, go for a run, or practice yoga to relieve their distress.” “When they feel better afterward, that behavior is reinforced,” explains Nock. “We believe the same is true for self-injury: if you cut yourself and feel really bad, the feeling goes away.”
Will inquire about cutting spark thoughts in the minds of teenagers?
This is something that many parents are concerned about. However, it’s reasonable to assume that students in middle and high school are fully aware of what self-harm entails, thanks to social media and interactions with classmates and others. “Asking kids about it isn’t going to give them the idea to do it — all of the data we have suggests that’s not the case,” says Nock.
What are the warning symptoms of teen cutting?
Be on the lookout for fresh cuts on a teen’s skin or signs that skin has been sliced, burned, or had things inserted beneath it covering bodily regions — such as arms or legs — that they did not previously cover.
Is there a link between cutting and suicidal ideation?
While kids who cut do not aim to end their lives in this manner, their propensity to harm themselves may suggest a higher risk of suicide attempts. According to the 2022 study, more than half of children and adolescents who die by suicide have previously self-harmed.
“The more you intentionally harm your body — which requires some courage — the more likely you are to target yourself in the future,” Nock explains. “We also believe there’s a self-hatred component to this — when you’re upset, you’ll hurt your body rather than do something productive like go for a run.” There’s a kind of self-criticism that causes people to damage themselves and, eventually, attempt suicide.”
What should parents do if they discover indications of cutting?
Teens who self-harm prefer to confide in their peers rather than their parents or other adults. However, parents may break through the concealment and give support by being calm and consistent.
“Encourage them to talk to you about what they’re experiencing, knowing that you’re an open ear and will be as nonjudgmental as possible,” Nock adds. “It’s unrealistic to expect us to eliminate all risky behaviors among children.” When death is a possibility, however, encourage friends and relatives to break the silence and intervene to keep the individual safe.”
Seeking out proper resources can be beneficial.
Take your child to his or her primary care physician, who can recommend you to a mental health specialist, or go immediately to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker for evaluation.
Inquire with your doctor or a mental health professional about local or telehealth cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) possibilities. Both techniques can assist teenagers in developing healthy coping mechanisms for emotional discomfort.
If your child’s self-injury is serious or you are concerned about the prospect of suicide, take him or her to the nearest hospital emergency department. “If our children fall and suffer a break or an accidental injury that requires medical attention, we take them to the ER — and the same should be true for self-inflicted injuries,” Nock argues.
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