Vintage Parenting 101: The Growing Problem Of Self-Injury

As a part of my efforts to increase the accessibility of my website, I am re-posting articles from my old Parenting 101 page as stand-alone blog posts on the main site.

April 24, 2007

“The Growing Problem of Self-Injury”

Q – Why does this problem seem to be growing so much in recent years?

A – A couple of main reasons. First, adolescents today are feeling more hurt and abandoned by adults than any previous generation in American history. (I recommend reading Chap Clark’s painfully insightful book, “Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenager.”) So many of our young people have been exposed to so much more than they are equipped to handle, yet have increasingly less active guidance from loving, invested adults in their lives. For many, the physical hurt of self-injury is a tangible way of expressing on the outside the emotional hurt they are feeling inside. Another major reason for the increase in reports of self-injury is the media exposure itself. Young people see it on movies or TV and find graphic images and ideas about self-injury on websites, then try it out for themselves. This can actually lead to something very like an addiction.

Q – Why self injury? Is this a suicide attempt? What is it about?

A – IT IS NOT A SUICIDE ATTEMPT. In fact, as difficult as it may be for many to understand, many use self-injury as a coping tool to keep from attempting suicide. There are several motivations that can drive self-injury. Some feel so much pain, shame, or confusion inside that they use this as a way of “releasing” those feelings, letting them out through the cuts, burns, or other injuries. Others feel so numb that they injure themselves just to feel alive, and the pain and/or blood is a vivid affirmation that they are still breathing. Some essentially become addicted to the euphoric high produced when their bodies release chemicals into their bloodstream as a result of the injury – the endorphins and catecholemines actually produce a numbing sensation like that of the “runner’s high.”

Q – What warning signs should parents be looking for?

A –

– wearing long sleeves or pants at “inappropriate times”

– obsession with objects such as razors, knives, glass, lighters, or erasers (used to create friction burns)

– listening to music with violent or pain-related lyrics or album covers

– visiting websites with a focus on self-injury, cutting, “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia), or similar themes (Parents, please check your children’s internet history regularly, even though they may get angry with you!)

– an anxious or angry insistence on privacy, beyond what is normal for adolescence (I know, this one is hard to gauge.)

– a sudden avoidance of a specific person, group, or situation (this may be an indication that some type of abuse has occurred.)

Q – What can parents do to help a self-injury child?

A – It is essential to calm yourself before intervening with you child. If you are frightful, angry, or shaming, it will make the problem much worse for your child. Ask them what has been going on, and how they are feeling. Listen to their answers without getting caught up in emotional reactivity. Lovingly respond with calm support. Contact a helping professional right away. This may be a licensed marriage and family therapist, social worker, professional counselor, or psychologist. With the right professional guidance, the most essential key to healing for most self-injuring teens or children is a calm, supportive, honest, loving connection with their parents.

Q – What resources do you recommend?

A – Some excellent links are available on the lower right side of my website, under “self-injury links.” In addition, look at the “self-injury” page in my recommended reading section at the top right of the screen.

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