Discovering marks of self-harm on your child, would have to be one of the most confronting and concerning moments for any parent. It would also have to be one of the most confusing moments, because the phenomenon of adolescent self-harm is quite often shrouded in secrecy, myth and assumption.
A base question still remains though for any parent finding themselves in this position … what could possibly be happening in my child’s life that drives them to want to hurt themselves? Because, that’s what they do. Self-harmers hurt themselves, physically and deliberately, as a means of blocking out other hurt, usually emotional or psychological.
This post is not intended to be a definitive analysis of self harm and its causes. Far, from it. It certainly is not a replacement for any type of professional intervention should this issue be impacting upon your family. This is the first of a series of posts where I hope to shed some light on adolescent self-harming behaviour to assist those parents who may be encountering this, sadly too frequent, behaviour and are at a loss to understand the what, how and why behind it.
This initial post will look at some of the commonly believed thoughts around self-harming and put rest to some of the misconceptions that surround it. A second instalment next week will explore some of the reasons for self harming as believed by professionals in the field and finally, a third post will follow with some strategies and suggestions for parents who find themselves dealing with this issue.
When I began working with adolescents in 1989, self harm was a less frequently seen event. Of course it certainly did happen, and probably much more than many of us at the time realised. Research shows this current generation of teens is not the first to display such behaviours, but possibly the behaviour is becoming more overt.
Adolescent culture has certainly changed since 1989, and I’ve observed this firsthand. In some teen peer groups, self-harm has become an almost accepted form of self-expression and the battle scars of cutting may be displayed more openly, but of course this is not always the case. I can only have an educated guess at why the incidence of self-harming behaviour seems to have increased but, without statistics or supportive evidence, that’s not the question at heart here.
Let’s just start by sorting some fact from fiction.
5 truths about self harming
- Many who self-harm will often themselves realise that it is not an effective, long term solution to dealing with emotional pain and/or distress but still find it hard to abandon
- Over 12% of young Australians between the ages of 15-24 will admit to participating in some self-harming behaviour
- It is statistically more common in adolescent girls but is not restricted to a particular gender, age, culture or socio-economic status
- Often self-harm goes unnoticed and many harmers do not seek help or come to the attention of health professionals
- Self-harm is often in response to built up stress and not a single or particular event
5 myths about self harming
- Self harm is an attempt at suicide. Wrong. The conclusion can’t automatically be drawn that someone who self harms is trying to end their life. What they are trying to do is cope with pain or trauma.
- People self-harm only for attention. Wrong. Much self-harm is done covertly in places that it can not be easily seen. Often even friends are unaware of the self-harm or its extent.
- Self-harming is a trend amongst the ’emo’ or ‘goth’ sub-culture. Wrong. Self-harming is not the pastime of a particular teen sub-culture and is not limited to anyone from a particular gender, age, culture or socio-economic status.
- Talking about self-harm will serve to encourage it. Wrong. Talking about self-harm will hopefully de-mystify the behaviour and encourage harmers to more openly seek professional assistance.
- Cutting is the only form of self-harm. Wrong. While it may be the most prevalent form of self-harm, cutting is only one way harmers seek to hurt themselves. Other forms of self-harm include burning oneself, picking at scabs or wounds, pulling hair from the roots and hitting oneself.
Next week, the second post in this series will look further at self-harming behaviour and what are believed to be some of the triggers. Until then, do you have a story about self-harming that you would like to share, or a particular question you’d like to see addressed? Please, feel free to get in touch.
research from: Headspace – National Youth Mental Health Foundation
Support information: Parentline 1300 30 1300; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800