When Skylar’s mother walked into her daughter’s room, her eyes flashed at the blood running down her daughter’s wrists. There was a large gash that ran up and down the middle of her forearm. She pleaded with her daughter, “What’s wrong? Why would you do that to yourself?”
Skylar shook her head not knowing exactly how to respond. Not really knowing why she was doing what she was doing herself. Her mother admitted later feeling for the first time helpless, overwhelmed, and essentially at a loss for what to do. She realized however, that in this case, her daughter didn’t have an enemy at school or work; instead her daughter’s enemy was inside her own head. This made it difficult to see the best steps ahead.
Fortunately, she called a psychologist to get the right treatment her daughter needed. However, surprisingly, she and her daughter were scorned with judgment including many of Skylar’s peers calling her “emo”, short for emotional.
Certainly, when others find out about a teen who engaging in self injury, and especially if they’ve never heard of such behavior, they tend to judge or simply be shocked by the idea that someone would hurt themselves. Self harm is easily misunderstood. However, when understood, self harm can be seen for what it is, which is frequently a means for coping with strong and overwhelming emotions, and treated appropriately.
Teen self injury is not an attempt at suicide. Instead, it is a non-fatal act carried out with a purpose. Teens might harm themselves as a way to feel physical pain, to create a lasting sign of distress, as a punishment for perceived failure, to release feelings, or to cope with strong emotions that might result from trauma or challenging past experiences. Using self harm as a coping mechanism for anxiety and other strong emotions is most common among teens and adults.
According to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standardized text used by clinicians across North America, harming oneself is the act of deliberately inflicting injury on the body without the intent of suicide. Self harm can include cutting, head banging, pulling hair, burning or bruising the body, stabbing, hitting, or excessive rubbing of the skin. The DSM recognizes that acts of self harm are not those that are socially sanctioned, such as body piercing or tattooing.
Occurrences of self harm are at its highest among those who are between the ages of 12 and 18. However, teen self injury is not an attempt to seek attention, as some might think. Instead, as mentioned above, it is often a means to communicate distress, particularly for those who may not be able to articulate their emotional or psychological symptoms. Often, self harming behavior is an indication that there are underlying issues to be addressed or possibly a mental illness that needs treatment.
The best way to care for a teen who is exhibiting self harming behavior is to seek the professional service of a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. With proper treatment, such as medication and therapy, self harm can be replaced with healthier coping mechanisms that are life affirming and safe.
And this is precisely the case with Skylar. She was able to find healthier coping mechanisms for the strong emotions she was feeling. Instead of using the energy behind those emotions against herself, she was able to express them in the safe container created by her therapist. Eventually, her pattern of self harm stopped entirely. And one benefit of having gone through the trials of that experience was the relationship that deepened with her mother.