Counseling for Self-Mutilating Teenagers

By: Mike Shery

Self-injury, in the psychological sense, is the act of your adolescent deliberately destroying his or her bodily tissue in order to change the way he or she feels emotionally. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has become popular with some adolescents.

The causes and severity of self-mutilation vary. Some forms of it include: Extreme scratching; branding; picking and pulling skin or hair; burning; scraping; cutting; biting; head banging; purposely bruising; the hitting of oneself; and excessive tattooing or body piercing.

Some reasons teens self-mutilate include: Risky sensation-seeking, rebelliousness, the rejection of authority, the highlighting of individuality and seeking the acceptance of ones peers. Others, however, injure themselves out of desperation, rage, as gestures of attention-seeking, to highlight their feelings of helplessness or self-loathing or to cope with suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms of self-mutilation must be taken seriously because these kids often suffer from serious emotional problems such as clinical depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress (PTSD) or bipolar disorder. Additionally, some adolescents who engage in self-injury may develop Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as adults.

Some young kids may resort to self-mutilation occasionally, but eventually grow out of it. Children who have been abused or abandoned may also present these symptoms.

Why do teens injure themselves?

Self-injury results from a variety of factors. Teenagers who have difficulty expressing their feelings may attempt to reduce tension in this way. Also, they sometimes try to mask physical discomfort, pain and low self-esteem with the distracting quality of self-mutilation.

Some teenagers feel like they are in a steam or pressure cooker and, for some reason, the act of harming themselves seems to reduce the pressure or tension they feel. Others, however, say they feel hurt, rage, anxiety and hate, even while they are injuring themselves.

The effects of peer pressure also influence adolescents in mutilating themselves. The difficulty is the permanency of this behavior because even though fads come and go, many of the wounds on the skin will be permanent. Therefore, at some point, teenagers may hide their scars, burns or bruises because of embarrassment, shame or criticism about their appearance.

What should you do about your teens self-injurious behavior?

Talk with their adolescent about respecting and valuing his or her body. Do not forget to serve as a role model by not engaging in acts of self-mutilation yourself.

Adolescents who hurt themselves must be taught to:

Accept reality and learn to tolerate the present,

Identify their feelings and talk them through,

Distract themselves from desires to self-mutilate (by counting to ten,waiting 15 minutes, blurting out NO! or STOP!, practicing relaxation exercises, writing in a
journal, generating positive images or snapping a rubber band on their wrist),

Stop, think, and assess the advantages and disadvantages of injuring oneself,

Soothe themselves when they are feeling anxious or stressed without using self-injurious behavior,

Practice stress management and coping skills,

Practice anxiety self-management and help-seeking social skills to use before injuring oneself.

In order to identify and treat the underlying causes of self-injury in your teen, your first step would be to get an evaluation from a psychologist. Do not forget that feelings of wanting to die or commit suicide are the reasons that many adolescents end up in the emergency room.

If it is determined that treatment is necessary for your teen, your psychologist will be able to treat the serious emotional disorders that accompany self-injurious behavior.

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