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What is self-harm? Answers for parents

July 01, 2022

Mental Health Parenting Wellness
Affectionate young mom supporting stressed sad teen child daughter

Self-harm (also called self-injury) means doing anything to physically harm yourself on purpose. Self-harm injuries may be minor, or they may be severe. Although self-harm isn’t a diagnosable mental disorder, some who engage in self-injury may have a mental disorder.

You might’ve first heard about self-harm in the news or from other parents who say social media is helping to increase self-harm in children and teens. Young people have reported that they learned about self-injury from the internet, and data does suggest that youth who self-harm are more active on social media than youth who don’t self-harm.

“Parents are right to be concerned, especially parents of children who are struggling with things like trauma, depression or low self-esteem,” says Ryan McQueen, M.D., Service Line Chief of Behavioral Health and Medical Director of Adolescent Service at Riverside Behavioral Health Center. “It’s disturbing to learn that self-injury is ‘trending’ online. Young people are already at an increased risk for self-harm, even without social media being involved.”

Dr. McQueen says the best thing that any parent can do — whether a child has a mental illness or not — is be involved in their child’s life, both in real life and online. And learn the facts on self-injury.

“Understanding what self-harm is and what it isn’t is key to knowing how to recognize it and how to deal with it,” he explains.

Below are the main points about self-harm that Dr. McQueen says every parent should know.

Self-harm is also known as “nonsuicidal self-injury”

One common thought is that people who self-harm are suicidal. This is not true, and it’s why self-harm is also called nonsuicidal self-injury.

Self-injury is not the same as suicide. People who self-harm aren’t trying to die. Some people who have self-harmed even say they did it to actually stop themselves from acting on their suicidal thoughts.

The most important thing parents need to remember is that even though self-harm is not suicide, some people who self-harm have suicidal thoughts. If your child self-harms, ask them if they’ve thought about suicide. If they yes, get them professional help now.

Self-harm often starts in the teen years

For many, self-injury begins when they are teenagers. Why this happens depends on several factors that aren’t always easy to predict. But if you’re the parent of a teenager, Dr. McQueen says you can help them to think twice about engaging in self-harm by teaching them to respect and value their bodies.

Parents should also be aware of the following risk factors that can lead a teen to self-harm:

  • Being a victim of bullying or discrimination
  • Being unable to talk about one’s feelings
  • Going through a traumatic experience, such as child abuse, the death of a family member or friend, or sexual abuse
  • Having a mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety
  • Having a drug or alcohol problem
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Having an eating disorder
  • Knowing someone who self-injures

Teens with these risk factors turn to self-injury to help them deal with their painful emotions.

If your child has any of these risk factors, you can help them avoid self-harm by introducing them to healthy, healing ways to deal with their emotions — like art or exercise. And consider making an appointment with a licensed therapist or counselor. These professionals are trained to help people learn how to deal with their painful emotions and experiences in a healthy way.

Self-harm releases endorphins, but that doesn’t make it OK

People who engage in self-injury often say that it makes them feel better. There is evidence that self-injury causes the brain to release “feel-good chemicals” called endorphins. However, this doesn’t make self-injury OK.

Severe self-injuries may have long-lasting health consequences or cause unintended suicide. Continued self-injury is also a risk factor for suicide. Even minor self-injuries can leave lifelong scars on the skin that will become a constant reminder of the past.

It can be hard to identify a teen who self-harms, but here are some signs parents can look for

Some signs a teen may be engaging in self-harm include:

  • Having cuts, burns, bruises or scratches that they can’t explain
  • Having questionable items like knives or razors in their possession
  • Refusing to wear anything but long-sleeve shirts or pants, even when it’s hot outside
  • Wearing bandages more than normal
  • Withdrawing from family and friends in an effort to hide injuries

These signs aren’t always easy to spot. Parents who are concerned will need to actively look and also understand that even a child who seems happy and social could still be self-injuring.

What to do if you think your child is self-harming

If you think your teen is self-injuring, get them help now. Start by asking them if they are self-harming or if they’ve thought about suicide. If they say yes, make an appointment with a therapist or your primary care provider immediately.

Even if they say no, you know your child better than anyone else.

“If your instincts say something is wrong, something probably is wrong, especially if your child has any risk factors for self-harm,” says Dr. McQueen. “Keep talking to them, stay involved and get them professional help if you’re worried about their safety.”

Riverside Behavioral Health Center provides individualized crisis acute care for young people aged 12 to 17. Our mental health professionals have experience caring for adolescents who self-harm. Learn more about our services and how we can help your child.

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