Self-harm In Adolescents: What To Do If Your Child Self-harms?

Adolescence constitutes a risk for presenting self-harming behaviors. Discover what they are, what their risk factors are and what you should do if your child self-harms.

Self-harm in adolescents: What to do if your child self-harms?

In recent years, self-harm in the adolescent stage has become more relevant because an increase in the tendency to self-harm during the adolescent stage has been observed. Specifically, it is estimated that between 13-28% of teenagers self-harm The age of onset being between 13 and 15 years and more common in women. In addition, some studies have found that approximately 63% of people who have self-harm continue to do so after a year from the first time it was carried out.

But is self-harm a disorder? If my son or daughter self-harms, does it mean that he or she has a psychological disorder? Does self-harm mean that the person has suicidal ideas? Read this article and discover these issues as well as the most effective treatments to treat them.

What is self-harm?

The self harm They are all those intentional acts that aim to harm one’s own body and that do not have suicide as the goal. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) indicates that people who have presented self-harming behaviors have carried them out with the aim of alleviating discomfort, resolving some difficulty and/or experiencing positive emotions. Normally, self-harm is associated with the presence of difficulties in relationships, negative thoughts and feelings such as tension, worry, anxiety, anger, etc. and sometimes thoughts about self-harm appear frequently, even when the person is doing activities.

Although the self harm non-suicidal disorder is included in the manual, it is not currently considered a psychological disorder but the inclusion of this problem has allowed for better understanding and identification. One of the aspects that has been investigated is whether self-harm has a direct relationship with suicide. In the case of adolescents, it has been shown that when an adolescent self-harms, he or she does not present a clear desire to commit suicide, but the presence of self-harm at this stage increases the risk of making an attempt. In conclusion, the fact that a teenager self-harms does not mean that he wants to commit suicide, but it does mean that he will have a higher risk of attempting it than a teenager who does not self-harm.

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When we think of self-harm, we usually associate it with skin injuries that are intentionally done through cuts on arms or dolls. However, there are different types of self-harm either forms of self-harm such as hitting oneself or objects, burning oneself, causing bruises, breaking bones, etc.

Which are the risk factors?

In psychology we usually talk about protective factors and risk factors. Both can be related to different aspects such as the environment itself, the person’s personality, genetic aspects, etc. The former refer to those aspects that protect, that is, they reduce the probability that a person will suffer from a certain problem and/or psychological disorder. Therefore, when we talk about risk factors we refer to those aspects that increase the probability.

In the case of self-harm in adolescence, it has been shown that there are certain aspects that increase the probability that an adolescent will self-harm. Being a teenager in this case already constitutes a factor that increases the probability of a person self-harming. The other risk factors that have been found are:

  1. To be a woman: As we have already mentioned, there are more teenage women who self-harm than men. It seems that this gender difference is associated with the fact that it is more common for women to present depressive symptoms, difficulties in emotional regulation and low self-esteem than men.
  2. Diagnosis of depression, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and/or an eating disorder (ED): It has been found that self-injurious behavior is more frequent in people who suffer from one of the three psychological disorders mentioned and in relation to eating disorders, bulimia is the disorder that is most related to self-harm. However, self-injurious behavior is not necessarily associated with a psychological disorder.
  3. Lack of emotional regulation: Lack of emotional regulation is one of the main risk factors in most disorders and problems. In this case, being a very impulsive person and not having resources for self-regulation can predispose to self-harm since the person would seek emotional relief through self-harm.
  4. Low self-esteem: The majority of adolescents who present self-harming behavior have a negative image of themselves and it is considered that presenting a negative self-concept is a factor that maintains this problem.
  5. Consumption of drugs: Drug use is more common in people who self-harm compared to those who do not. Although there are still many aspects to be investigated, it seems that the most common drug is alcohol, but it is still unknown if frequency and other aspects affect the relationship between the consumption of this substance and the presence of self-harm.
  6. Interpersonal conflicts: Presenting interpersonal problems, whether in the family or school context, is a risk factor. In relation to the school context, self-harm is more frequent in those people who suffer from bullying.
  7. Have a family member and/or friend who self-harms: Human beings learn behaviors through various ways and one of them is through imitation, that is, seeing someone doing a certain behavior and imitating it. It is for this reason that having a loved one who self-harms is a risk factor. On the other hand, in relation to this issue, many of the adolescents who do it interact with others through chats and forums where they share experiences, procedures, etc.
  8. Sexual abuse: Having suffered sexual abuse during adolescence predisposes and precipitates self-harming behavior, this behavior being more frequent in adolescents who have suffered sexual abuse than those who have not.
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What should I do if my child self-harms? Tips

Discovering that your own son or daughter is self-harming can be a very difficult and complicated situation for a mother and/or father. However, it is important to take care of our language as well as the way we speak so that you can feel supported and understood. Below you have a series of tips that may be useful if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Ask for professional help: The presence of self-harm always requires the help of a professional so that they can determine the causes and, therefore, plan a treatment. It is recommended that you inform your child in advance that you are going to ask for help from a professional.
  • Manage your own emotions: It is normal that finding out about this type of situation causes you a lot of anguish, anger and/or frustration. However, it is important that when talking to him or her you look for a quiet space and be understanding, trying not to judge him or her.
  • Get in touch: Express that he can explain to you whenever he wants what is happening to him without pressuring him to do so. Make it clear to him that you will be there to listen to him and that you will not judge him.
  • Respect your privacy: Surely this whole situation causes you a lot of concern and you need to seek support from other people. Although it is totally necessary and valid, it is recommended that you do not do it when your child is in front of you, thus preventing him from feeling exposed.
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Self-harm in adolescents: Treatment

The treatment of self-injury focuses on psychological intervention, although sometimes it is necessary to accompany it with pharmacological treatment. In relation to psychological therapies, the most common are:

  1. Therapy based on problem solving: This therapy focuses on the fact that the person self-harms because they do not have sufficient strategies to solve their problems. That is why therapy focuses on providing resources and strategies to resolve them.
  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy: The objective of this therapy is to modify the thoughts associated with self-harm as well as the related emotions.
  3. Family therapy: On many occasions, one of the factors that maintains self-harming behavior in a teenager is the family environment. For that reason this therapy focuses on improving communication between members.

It is common for people who self-harm to feel fear, guilt and/or shame. However, psychological treatment is very important for the recovery of the adolescent’s emotional and mental well-being.