It is a very frightening time for parents now that reports of children and teens self-harming and committing suicide is receiving so much coverage right now in the media, and many parents are feeling helpless.
What is Self-Harm?
Seems like an obvious question: most self harm involves cutting arms and legs with a blade or knife. However there are other ways young people try to harm themselves including:
- banging their head or throwing their body against a wall
- deliberately practising unsafe sex
- taking dangerous physical risks
- swallowing poisonous substances such as bleach, medication
The brain simply can’t tell the difference between physical relief and mental relief, so it delivers both.
Is Self-Harm a First Step To Suicide?
Usually, far from being the first step to suicide it is often the best way the child or teen knows to live with emotional pain.
How to live.
However this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry or take this seriously. Some young people cut themselves once every couple of months but others cut themselves most days. The kind of emotional trauma that drives people to harm themselves that much can develop into suicidal thoughts and even actions.
Even teens who are not suicidal can go too far by mistake and have been known to kill themselves accidentally.
It is hard to be sure of how many young people self-harm since the vast majority are not serious enough to need medical intervention and cuts and scars are usually covered up on arms and legs. However it is estimated that overall about 10% of young people self-harm.
It is predominately girls who self-harm.
Reasons Why Young People Harm Themselves
Different youngsters give different reasons for harming themselves. It may be because it gives them the feeling they have some sort of control – similar to the motivations behind anorexia. Others say it is an expression of anger or hatred against themselves; a common one is girls who cut themselves as punishment for being overweight.
However most young people cut themselves because it makes them feel less stressed.
Self-Harm As Stress Relief?
Usually, far from being the first step to suicide it is often the best way the child or teen knows to live with emotional pain
It has traditionally been believed that many young people cut themselves because the emotional or mental pain they are experiencing is so intense that the physical pain just provides a temporary distraction.
However recent advances in understanding how the human brain works also shows that “cutters” are tapping into the way the brain releases hormones to deal with danger.
The brain does not itself have nerve endings. It “interprets” signals from either nerve endings or from other parts of the brain as pain. It cannot actually distinguish between mental pain and physical pain; the biochemical reaction is the same. When physical pain is over – ie, when the blade has stopped cutting the skin, the brain sends out neurochemical signals to say that “the danger is over”, and it enters a state of relief.
It actually confuses the relief from the physical pain with relief from the mental pain.
This is why cutters often feel a relief from their emotional anguish after they stop cutting themselves. The brain simply can’t tell the difference between physical relief and mental relief, so it delivers both.
The Vicious Cycle of Self-Harm
However, the relief that comes from self-harm is short-lived and in turn kicks off the next round of pain and self-harm.
As the endorphins released by the brain wear off, so the self-harmer will usually start to feel ashamed of what they have done. This shame intensifies into guilt and self-disgust, which then intensifies again into the self-hatred and depression which kicked off the mental suffering in the first place.
Over time, if not treated, the endorphin relief ceases to kick in, and there is a risk that in desperation the sufferer can attempt to inflict increasing amounts of pain and harm on themselves in order to achieve that elusive relief.
This is where even a non suicidal child or adolescent can go too far and tip themselves into accidental permanent disability or even death.
What are the Warning Signs Your Child May be Self-harming?
- Sudden personality change from being outgoing to withdrawn
- Covering up eg. with long sleeves even in hot weather
- Constantly picking at scabs, not letting them heal
- Statements of being hopeless or worthless
- Statements about life being not worth living
- Isolating him/herself in the bathroom for long periods
- Discarded razors in the trashbin
In Part Two We’ll look at how to respond if you think that your child is self-harming.
If you have been affected by anything in this article please contact:
In the US:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
National Hopeline Network 1-800-784-2433)
In the UK
The Samaritans 116 123
Childline 0800 1111