What to Do If Your Child is Self Mutilating

Self mutilation, a practice that began in the 1960s, has become a disturbing trend on the rise in the world of today’s teenagers. There are lots of reasons teenagers and young adults choose self mutilation. Most people are generally horrified at the practice and label the teens or young adults as freaks or weird. Creating a label only further distresses these young people. This trend is becoming more common than you think, and parents should know about it. Learn how to cope with what’s going on and how to stop it.

What is Self Mutilation?

Self mutilation is when a person intentionally hurts their own body, without the purpose of suicide, to reduce emotional stress. Although cutting and burning of one’s own flesh is typical self mutilation practiced by many teenagers there are many forms. Self hitting, scratching, piercing, or pulling out hair are some of the other forms of self mutilation.

Learning how to recognize the signs is only the first part of treating a child who suffers from self mutilation. If you suspect your child may be harming him/herself there are several warning signs you will be able to recognize. The most obvious sign you can see is cuts, scratches, burns, and scars. Children will also try to cover these scars, and you may notice they are having intense emotional irregularities.

It isn’t unusual for children to feel great shame about self mutilation so be aware of how your child dresses. Are they covering their body inappropriately? Do they wear jeans and long sleeves in warm weather when all the other children are wearing shorts and short sleeves? Does your daughter wear jeans all year long, or cover her legs with thick stockings when wearing dresses and skirts? Pay attention to excessive jewelry and piercings, as they may also be a sign of self mutilation.

Young people and teenagers that take part in self mutilation do it because it is a way for them to release pain, anger, anxiety, and fear. Self mutilation is a coping mechanism that often develops in children that are seriously depressed, have anxiety problems, or high amounts of stress. This is not always the case though. Sometimes children that seem perfectly happy and healthy also partake in self mutilation. Often times it is much harder to recognize in these children only because no one ever suspects it.

Although self mutilation is becoming a more common practice it is still considered socially unacceptable. Although teenagers who practice self mutilation often hang out in groups, it is not a group activity. Yes, some teenagers are proud of their scars, but under this cover there is a wealth of shame. Often times, children that are uncharacteristically sensitive or inhibited, or show explosive and dramatic behavior are more likely to involve themselves in self mutilation. Although both extremes are identified in most teenagers to a lesser degree it is obvious when it is intensified or heightened.

Causes of Self Mutilation

There is no one single cause for the unexplained growth of self mutilation among teenagers and young people. One major cause seems to be today’s generation of children are more distressed. Since most children today do not spend as much time with their parents developing cognitive skills it has lead to problems later on. Learning self soothing skills informally has not worked for many children. Often times, children that participate in self mutilation are on treadmills of activity from school, sports, dance, and other affiliations. Most times the competitive nature of these activities increases the level stress and anxiety your child feels.

The constant media barrage of violence and sex has also been blamed for the increase of self mutilation among teenagers in the last 40 years. Often times the media will sensationalize injury and violence in children’s programming, video games, magazines, and on the internet. The constant media flow of aggressive behavior does affect children’s well being and mental aptitude. During the last 40 years the prevalence of self mutilation among young people has nearly doubled. Typically, females are more likely to take part in self mutilation but it is also on the rise among teen aged boys. It is now common for most teenagers to know someone who self mutilates, and in some areas of the country up to 1/5 of all high school students have intentionally injured or hurt themselves.

Why Young People Self Mutilate

There are many reasons that teenagers practice self mutilation. Often times your child will witness a close friend going through self mutilation. This is how self mutilation is learned. It is not taught in school and most parents do not teach it to their children. Self mutilation is a learned behavior. Since teenagers are easily influenced by their peers they may actually believe what they are doing is acceptable. Some teenagers try it just because they saw someone else doing it.

Teenagers who are experiencing anxiety, stress, shame, anger or sadness may retreat to self mutilation. Young people practice self mutilation because it is a release of this negative energy. Teenagers use self mutilation to reduce their amount of emotional pain which some call numbness or nothingness. Often times, self mutilation is carried out without the purpose of committing suicide, but is used as a way to fill a void or relieve pain.

How to Stop Self Mutilation

Because teenagers often turn to self mutilation in times of high stress and anxiety it is important not to upset them. The first thing that you probably want to do is freak out, but doing so is just going to make the problem worse. Hysterics and demands will just increase the amount of pressure your teenager feels possibly heightening the situation. Don’t confuse self mutilation with a suicide attempt. Most teenagers do not do damage severe enough to cause death.

Simply respond in a low key attitude and don’t immediately force your child to talk or stop the destructive behavior. Be patient and let your child come to you. Stay out of their personal space and do not be intrusive. Invasive behavior on your part may cause your child to become irrational or lash out in destructive ways towards themselves and others. Of course in severe situations emergency medical help should be sought. Keeping the problem a secret will not help so it is best to seek professional help right away.

Try asking your child to see the school therapist or a psychotherapist that specializes in self mutilation. Be sympathetic and validate your child’s pain. Understand that it is okay to feel depressed or bad, but try to discontinue the self destructive behavior. Figure out what the triggers are for your teenager. For some it is a family or social situation that is bothering them, or even academics.

Types of Treatments

Among the many treatments for self mutilation the most popular seems to be Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is a program that works to change your teenagers thought pattern and behavior toward self mutilation. Young people also learn mindfulness skills, distracting and self soothing techniques, and emotion regulation. Sometimes the use of anti-depressants is required but is not typically recommended for young adults because of their growing bodies and minds.

From time to time hospital treatment may be necessary in severe cases. This can be an eye opening experience for many teenagers and also hard to deal with. Family support is especially important in deterring self mutilation. Hospital treatment can help teenagers realize their problems as well as help them associate self awareness. With your support, as your child’s progress increases you will begin to feel less fear about whether or not your child will hurt themselves again. Getting help is the most important thing you can do.

If you believe your child is struggling with self mutilation you can get assistance from the National Mental Health Association. They can be reached by phone at 1-800-969-MNHA or on line at http://www.mnha.org. Safe Alternatives is a website designed to help parents and children that are suffering with self mutilation and can be found at http://www.safe-alternative.org. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill can also be contacted at 1-800-950-NAMI or on line at http://www.nami.org.

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