Why Teens Engage in Self-Harm

1 in 5 females engage in self harm, and oftentimes they tell no one.Thank you to Megan Sylvester, LMHC, LICSW for shedding some light on this topic as my first official guest blogger.

I am not at expert on cutting.  However, I have worked as a counselor with quite a few teen aged young ladies who have told me that they cut.  I will share with you what I have learned through my experience with these young ladies.

Based on my counseling experience, cutting is not the same thing as a suicidal gesture.  However, someone who cuts may also be contemplating suicide – or not at all.  From what I have seen, people cut for different reasons.  Some of the reasons are to feel something rather than feeling “numbed out” all the time; to feel better – a sense of relief; to gain some type of control in situations where the young person is feeling completely disempowered.  Although, I have heard it said that teens cut for attention, I have not found this to be true in my own experience.  In fact, according to clients, cutting makes them feel better temporarily.  I am told, it does not actually hurt, but reduces emotional pain.  I have worked with at least one young person who cut herself more seriously than she intended and ended up with more of an injury than she had anticipated.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens often.  It is certainly a frightening thought.

I found during the course of my work as a counselor, that it is not uncommon for people who cut to spend a great deal of time thinking about and planning for the next time that they will cut themselves.  I do not know if cutting is addictive, but there are certain aspects of it that are reminiscent of an addiction, such as becoming preoccupied with planning the next opportunity to cut and organizing the day’s schedule accordingly.  In addition, like a drug or alcohol addiction, the cutting behavior provides a temporary “fix” to the problem.  And, like taking drugs or drinking, problems become much worse over time when cutting is used as a problem solving strategy.

Another aspect of cutting that reminds me of problems associated with drinking and other addictions, is the shame associated with it.  I have never met a person who cuts who does not feel extreme shame because of this behavior.  This shame can make it very difficult for a teen to confide in a parent about the cutting.

Cutting my not be a suicidal gesture and it may even bring some relief to the person who cuts.  But, clearly it is not an effective way to manage feelings and/or to solve problems.  This is obvious, and parents who find out that their child is cutting, of course, are going to be extremely upset and want to know how to stop this behavior and help their child learn effective ways to cope with life’s inevitable challenges.  As with any type of self injurious behavior, I suggest resisting the understandable temptation to judge and/or “over react” (a term that is very subjective and I use it here knowing this) -– it is important to keep the channels of communication open.  Non judgmentally, encourage your child to seek some type of professional help.  Of course, if the cuts need medical attention, that would be the number one priority.  It’s easy for me to say “don’t panic” as I sit here typing this article, but do try to stay calm as your teen needs to know that you are going to be able to help her navigate this rocky time in her life.  Another important thing for you to do, as a parent, is to make sure that you have ample and solid support in your life.  I cannot emphasize this enough – parents often take care of everyone’s needs but their own and, in the long run, this can be self defeating.  You are a role model to your teen on how to manage stress.  Please remember:  Help is available for you and your teen, do not give up until you get the help you need.

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Megan Sylvester, LMHC, LICSW has a Master’s Degree in Counseling and a Master’s Degree in Social Work.  She has many years experience providing counseling and advocacy/case management for children, teens, and families.  Megan has worked in a variety of settings, including foster care, adoption, hospital, and mental health.  In addition, Megan is a certified teacher with elementary and special education endorsements.  Her experience teaching in the public school system gives her an in-depth understanding into how this system works and how to advocate effectively for children.  Megan has an office in downtown Bellingham.  She meets with her clients in her office, their homes, and schools in Whatcom County.