Self-harm refers to hurting oneself to relieve emotional pain or distress.
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists , the most common forms of self-injurious behavior are cutting and burning, with the least common forms being pulling out bodily hairs, punching walls, and ingesting toxic substances or sharp objects. Adolescent self-harming behavior has no one single cause, cutting across cultural and socioeconomic levels. More adolescent females engage in this behavior than males, and self-harming adolescents are rarely suicidal.
Parents can play an important role in preventing their teens from engaging in self-harming behaviors. The family environment unquestionably affects your teen. When conflicts arise, family members need to be able to come together as a team to solve these situations. Teens also need to feel that their parents are there for them unconditionally. In creating firm and fair boundaries, parents can help their child learn from their behavior, while still maintaining their emotional connection with them.
Self-harming behavior speaks to that teen attempting to meet their needs. The first thing you want to do is try and understand what proceeded your teen’s decision to self-harm. You want to approach her with real curiosity — as you are her teachers, and need to help her find more effective ways of getting her needs met. If you approach her with anger, there is no open conversation available.
I encourage you to be as inquisitive and non-reactive as possible. The key to minimizing self-harm is often in alleviating the issue that motivates the self-harming behavior, whether that is stress and anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, or not knowing how to manage social pressures. Asking open ended questions as simple as “Can you tell me more about your experience?” can further open up the lines of communication and strengthen your relationship. It is important to try to understand what the nature of the situation was. How did she feel about it before, during, and after she self-harmed? What made her feel like she wanted to do it?
When teens act out, disobey, behave rudely or display disturbing emotions, it’s easy to dismiss them or their behavior as “bad” or “wrong”; however, as you go about redirecting your child, it’s helpful to see these behaviors as your teen’s best attempt to meet a need. It calls upon you to use your relationship with your teen to try and discover and remedy the source of their unmet need.
The most effective treatment for adolescents displaying self-harming behavior seems to be family therapy. A therapist with experience working with teenagers can help improve family communication, teach conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills, and help foster more meaningful and closer relationships between parents and teens.
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