Self Harm, No Longer Just a Teenage Problem

Self-harm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For most parents, the thought of their teenager intentionally harming themselves can seem inconceivable.   We work hard every day to protect them from the worst of the world and often only see the dangers that are hiding “out there.”  Unfortunately, these two things together can make it very hard to see that one of the dangers might not be out there, but hiding inside our child.


Self-harm amongst teens has been on the rise for years due in part to increased awareness and more frequent discussion of self-harm amongst adolescents.  Experts believe that bringing it out into the open may actually have encouraged more teens to try it resulting in more widespread adoption.  Until recently, however, this practice was relegated to the tween and teen years, with most self harm incidents beginning around age 14.  New research published in the journal Pediatrics indicates that children are turning to self-harm as a coping strategy at younger and younger ages.


The study used information garnered from interviewing 665 kids in three different grades, third, sixth and ninth.  The participants were from two different parts of the country and the objective of the study was to assess the prevalence of self-harm amongst adolescents.    Interviews were conducted in a laboratory setting and participants were asked to respond based on their entire life experience, not just their recent experiences.


One of the most important findings was also one of the most shocking.  Cutting and self-harm, previously thought to occur primarily in the early teen years, is actually starting in elementary school.  The research team found that children as young as 7 may be using self-inflicted injury as a way to manage psychological stress.   Amongst the third grade participants, 8% have injured themselves and more than 60% of those that have caused themselves injury admit to doing it more than once.


The study did find that the rate of self-harm is lower in 6th graders with only 4% reporting its use as a self management strategy but any perceived improvement disappears with the results of the 9th grade interviews where 13% admit to engaging in self harm.


This means that parents need to know the signs of self harm and start looking for them earlier.  Here are some things parents need to know in order to recognize self-harm when it is happening, prevent additional harm, and help their children when it is needed.


1.     Self-harm isn’t just cutting.


While cutting may get most of the press, adolescents who engage in self-harm to alleviate frustration, stress, depression, and anxiety may also hit themselves, burn themselves, or do other things that cause injury.


2.     Girls do it more, but boys do it too.


Although more girls engage in self-harm as a coping strategy, they are not the only ones.  Girls are more likely to cut or carve their skin while boys are more likely to hit themselves or use blunt trauma to cause injury.


3.     Self-harm can be used like a drug.


For those who can’t quite grasp the concept of using self-harm as a way to cope with emotional stress, it may be helpful to understand why adolescents and some adults engage in it.  Physical pain causes a release of endorphins, which are feel good chemicals in the brain.  This effect blunts all pain, including the emotional distress the person is feeling.  In some ways, it can be compared to using drugs like cocaine, which create the same type of escape.


If you are concerned that your child is intentionally injuring themselves, seek professional help.  While these activities are not indicators of suicidal thoughts or precursors to suicidal tendencies, they may point to significant underlying issues that must also be addressed to safeguard the health and wellbeing of your child.


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