Self-harm in adolescents: causes, warning signs and how to deal with it

Self-harm in adolescents: causes, warning signs and how to deal with it

The arrival of adolescence in the stage of a person’s life is a complex moment , since a stage full of changes begins at all levels (social, biological, personal, family…).

At this stage of life, there are adolescents who initiate a type of harmful and dangerous behavior towards themselves, which is self-harm, a symptom that has increased dramatically in recent years, and especially since the pandemic.

Do you suspect your teen is self-harming? Why do these types of behaviors appear, what purpose do they serve? In this article we answer these questions and, in addition, we comment on the warning signs that we must be aware of as parents, as well as guidelines when acting, according to the vision of the experts.

Self-harm: what are they?

Self – injury is defined as the action of inflicting harm on oneself, either through wounds, cuts, scratches, bruises, blows or bites.

In adolescence , the most frequent injuries are cuts , which can be made on the arms, legs… and with various materials, especially blades or knives.

Self-injury: more prevalent in some disorders

Self-injury is an inadequate emotional regulation strategy . They can appear in isolation or in anxiety and depression disorders, personality disorders, eating behavior disorders and, above all, in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

BPD is a personality disorder that includes symptoms such as extreme impulsiveness , instability in emotions and interpersonal relationships, a feeling of emptiness, identity changes, and low self-esteem . And among these symptoms, self-harm is very frequent.

Borderline personality disorder

In relation to BPD, the data show that 1.4% of young people will meet diagnostic criteria for BPD at the age of 16 , and that this prevalence increases to 3.2% at the age of 22.

Why are there teenagers who self-harm?

We have seen some disorders where self-harm is frequent, although, we insist, this behavior can appear in adolescents without a diagnosed mental disorder. But why do they do it?

According to Sara Marco Sánchez, a psychologist specializing in clinical psychology at the Sant Joan de Déu Terres Hospital in Lleida , adolescents who self-harm present a difficulty in their ability to face problems in a healthy way.

What is the purpose of these self-harms?

According to the expert, the question is not so much “why” they do it, but “what for”. With what purpose?

In the case of adolescents with borderline personality disorder, we are talking about people with an impulsive response style with which they seek a quick escape from discomfort.

Inadequate or insufficient coping skills

Self-harm serves to deal with this discomfort , when adequate coping skills are not available for it.

Other features of self-harm

And Sara adds that the most common functions of self-harm in adolescents are:

  • Relieve tension and relax (the wound can generate endorphins).
  • Get distracted from thoughts.
  • Eliminate an unpleasant feeling of emptiness (very common in BPD).
  • Being able to experience sensations.
  • Communicate your suffering to the environment.
  • Punish oneself and redeem a feeling of guilt (as a form of “punishment”).

And it is that many times, when a person experiences intense emotional pain that feels intolerable, they self-harm so that physical pain replaces or covers up that emotional pain.

Finally, the traumatic events experienced can also trigger this type of behavior.

Self-harm: warning signs

Do you suspect that your child is self-harming? What signs can we attend to or what warning signs could be indicating this type of behavior?

According to Iria Méndez, a psychiatrist at the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona , ​​there are some signs that can lead to suspicion that a person is self -harming , such as:

  • Having ongoing injuries that cannot be explained.
  • Wearing clothes that are not suitable for the season or temperature, such as sweaters in summer.
  • Spending a lot of time alone in the bathroom or bedroom .
  • Finding razor blades or traces of blood in the trash.
  • Find material to heal, such as gauze or band-aids.
  • Related searches on social media or the internet.

What to do if your child self-harms?

If you have discovered that your child is self-harming, it is important that you can seek professional help as soon as possible, as people who self-harm should be evaluated by a health professional .

Watch out for signs of seriousness

In addition, this is especially important if the person shows any of these serious signs:

  • Uses dangerous or violent methods.
  • He self-harms on a regular basis .
  • She is isolated and has few friends .
  • Self-injury is accompanied by ideas or thoughts of death.
  • He has a mental disorder.

ask for professional help

A health professional will treat the physical injuries left by self-harm and assess whether it is necessary to consult a mental health specialist, in this case, a psychiatrist and/or a clinical or health psychologist .

The importance of accompanying and not judging

On the other hand, in addition to asking for psychological and/or psychiatric help, it is important that your child does not feel judged for his behavior.

It is normal for us to get anxious and worry as parents, but we have to accompany them in this process offering them our support and understanding from empathy and active listening , and not from reproach or anger.

Thus, we must try to understand how and why they have reached this extreme situation and make them understand that we will be by their side to support them .

In this sense, understanding the causes of the situation can help us understand them and open a door to hope for change, to the possibility that things can improve.

To do this, we insist, it is important to ask for professional help and coordinate with the different professionals who will attend to your child, working as a team, without stopping talking openly with our child about the subject and asking him what he needs at all times.

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