Having a teenager who is self-injuring can be very, very scary for a parent. Teen self-injury is an issue that has come out more in the news and media so it is being talked about more than in the past. It is important to note that many teens get piercings and / or tattoos. While this is concerning for a lot of parents, it is generally done because teens want to look cool and fit in and is not the same as teens who cut or burn themselves. If you are the parent of a teen who is excessively tattooing themselves or piercing themselves you may want to explore what is driving this behavior (especially if the tattooing or piercing is not being done professionally), however, generally this is about teens looking to create their own identity, trying to fit in or being rebellious.
Self-injury, on the other hand, involves teens cutting, scratching or burning themselves in order to feel better. It sounds contradictory at first…why would someone hurt themselves in order to feel better? What usually happens is that these teens are hurting inside and feel that they cannot control their internal pain, therefore they create pain that they can control as a way of releasing the internal pain. Generally when teens are self-injuring they do not want to die, they are just looking for some relief from their internal pain in the moment. What is scary, however, is that sometimes teens cut too deep and cause very permanent damage or even death even though this was not their intention.
Teens who self-injure by cutting can cut with just about any item, however, they frequently use the following items: razor, thumbtacks, forks, knives, broken glass, paper clips, broken CD’s needles, staples, fingernails, earrings and scissors. Teens who self-injure by burning themselves may use the following items: lighters, matches, cigarettes and erasers that they rub on their skin to create friction. Other forms of self-injuring can include biting, head banging, interfering with the healing of wounds, punching things excessively and hair pulling. While it is believed that self-injury rates are higher in teenage girls, we do know that teenage boys also engage in this behavior.
If you suspect or know that your teen is self-injuring you should ask them about it. I have worked with many parents who have had suspicions but were afraid to ask their teen about it because they did not understand it or know what to say. The reality is, they may feel a sense of relief and be very honest with you or they may continue to deny what they are doing. It is helpful for parents who are concerned about self-injury and who are addressing this with their teenager to remain calm during the conversation. By remaining calm, you are more likely to have your teen speak with you openly about what is going on for them – they are likely already feeling shameful so having you be willing to listen and not judge them may be what helps them tell you the truth. You can ask questions and let them know if you do not fully understand – generally teens appreciate honesty and may take the opportunity to better explain things to you which will give you insight into what is going on for them.
As a parent, you should not blame yourself for your teen’s self-injury. I have worked with so many parents who question if there is something different they should have said or done or not said or not done. You are likely not at all responsible and focusing on this will not be helpful to either you or your teenager. If your teen is self-injuring, it is important that you get them professional help. It is important for you, as the parent, to be involved in the treatment process with them and to help them learn to express what they are feeling inside and manage it in a healthier manner though the use of coping skills. You never want to bribe your teen to stop self-injuring or try to spoil them after they self injure to get them to feel better. While I have seen parents do this for all the right reasons, what happens is that the teens see this as another benefit of self-injuring and they lose any motivation they may have had to change their current behavior. Consulting with a professional can be very helpful for parents of teens who are self-injuring. As is the case with anything, it you are concerned that your teen is suicidal or at serious risk, you should seek emergency services immediately.