Self-harm is the intentional infliction of physical injury to oneself. This practice is more prevalent among teenagers than other age groups, particularly those teens who have trouble coping with emotion. Common forms of self-harm include hair pulling, burning (often with a cigarette), biting and cutting. Self-mutilation and self-harm are generally interchangeable terms, but most of the recent literature favors the term self-harm.
Awareness of self-harm has increased significantly in recent years. This heightened awareness has fueled research studies on how best to help teens who need to stop engaging in self-harm. The current approach includes both short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is to teach teens how to distract themselves when they feel the urge to self-harm. The long-term treatment goal is to address the underlying emotional issues that provoke these urges. Importantly, studies show that treatment is far more effective if the teen wants to stop self-harming and is a willing participant in treatment.
Short-Term Goal: Stop Self-Harming
When the desire to engage in self-harm arises, often the urge can be stifled if the teenager focuses on some kind of distraction. Many teens find the following activities are helpful diversions:
- Cleaning or tidying up their rooms
- Dancing to music
- Going for a walk
- Playing sports or running
- Reading a favorite book or magazine
- Taking a shower.
If the urge to self-harm is related to feeling of anger, sometimes punching a pillow or tearing a piece of paper can be a helpful outlet. The key is to stay busy and active until the feelings subside.
Self-harming is a dangerous activity. Learning how to divert the impulse to self-harm keeps the teenager out of immediate danger. However, the underlying reasons that make a person want to self-harm need to be addressed in order to ensure the teen learns healthy ways to express emotion and cope with all the stresses that accompany the transition into adulthood.
Long-Term Goal: Address Underlying Issues
To address the reasons why a person wants to self-harm, professional counseling is often advised, preferably with a therapist trained in treating cutting or other forms of self-mutilation. Teenagers who practice self-harm tend to be introverted and may have difficulty talking openly about their innermost feelings. Therefore, a therapist that the teen feels comfortable with, and who will be supportive, is important. Typically, the therapist will request one-on-one sessions with the teen as well as family counseling sessions that include the teen’s parents.
Depending on what the counseling reveals, the therapist may recommend that the teen take medication to treat underlying psychological issues. The most commonly prescribed medications for teenagers trying to overcome self-harming tendencies are antidepressants. Due to potential severe side effects, these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
Teens that self-harm often struggle with emotional issues, but self-harm doesn’t necessarily indicate an underlying psychological disorder. In some cases, however, an underlying mental illness is present — such as depression or borderline personality disorder — that is contributing to the drive to self-harm. Therapy can help identify and treat such mental illnesses.
American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry. (1999). Facts for families: Self-injury in adolescents. Retrieved August 17, 2010, from http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=Self-Injury in Adolescents