Adolescents who cut, burn, bite, scratch, or bruise their skin consistently may be hurting themselves on purpose. Although this might seem like odd behavior, there are valid psychological reasons behind self injury.
Self-injury – also known as Non-Suicidal Self-Injury or NSSI – is harming one’s own body without the intention of committing suicide. It can be a psychological tactic for, in most cases, dealing with stress. For instance, cutting or scratching oneself can be a way to control overwhelming feelings. Using self-harm as a coping mechanism for anxiety and other strong emotions is most common among teens. However, there are many other reasons why a teen might harm themselves. These can include:
- to reduce anxiety/tension
- to reduce sadness and loneliness
- to alleviate angry feelings
- to punish oneself due to self-hatred
- to get help from or show distress to others
- to escape feelings of numbness (e.g. to feel something)
- to dissociate from their problems
- to release feelings
Research suggests that self-injury can activate different chemicals in the brain which relieve emotional turmoil for a short period of time. Endorphins are secreted into the bloodstream and, as a result, teens often experience a numbing or pleasurable sensation. For some teens, cutting or harming their own body numbs any unpleasant thoughts and feelings and often a high comes with the experience. This high can actually become addictive. Just like having a dependence to drugs or alcohol, over time, this high builds a psychological dependence and creates a compulsive need to continue to self-harm.
Despite possibly growing dependent on the experience of self-harm, many teens report that they’ve done it only once. And in other cases, cutting or other forms of self harm become a chronic pattern. Approximately one quarter of adolescents and young adults who report self-injury have only done it once. According to research, among those teens who continue to self-harm, 40% stop within a year and almost 80% stop within five years of starting.
It’s important for parents and caregivers to recognize that sometimes self-harm is a symptom of a psychological illness, such as teen depression or anxiety. Self-harm might also show up among teens who struggle with addiction, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder.
If you have an adolescent who is cutting or hurting themselves in another way, it’s important to get professional assistance. However, keep in mind that if you see marks on the wrists of your son or daughter, don’t automatically assume that it is because of a failed suicide attempt. Although it’s easy to jump to that conclusion, self-harm is often not an attempt to commit suicide. The signs might appear the same (cut on the wrists) but the intention behind suicide is much different than self-harm. For instance, self-injury is often done as an attempt to feel better, while suicide comes with an intent to end one’s life.
If your teen is cutting or exhibiting other signs of self-harm, look for a mental health provider to work with. Typically, a teen who self-harms is having a difficult time coping with strong feelings, with stress, and/or with a mental health condition. Therefore, a mental health professional may be needed.