Self-Harm |

Treating Teen Self-Harm with New Coping Mechanisms

Posted on 05. May, 2014 by in Self Harm

You’re angry. You’ve been waiting for your girlfriend to show up for hours and she hasn’t been in touch. She’s probably out with her old boyfriend, having a good time without you. The more you think about it, the more you feel the red coals inside burn stronger and brighter. The more you think about it, the more you take a sip from the beer can you’re holding.

You decide to put the beer down and instead you pick up your burning cigarette from the ashtray. You lay down your other arm and push the lit cigarette into your skin. The pain puts you in your place. You feel the anger flush through your body, out through your arms and legs, and a sense of warmth fills your chest. You take a deep breath in and throw the cigarette out. You get up from your desk and turn your phone off so that you can ignore her, just in case she calls.

Self-mutilation, or self-harm, is often a way of coping with difficult emotions, such as anger. It’s common to hear about teen girls hurting themselves, such as cutting their wrists. In fact, superficial laceration is the most common form of self-harm. However, adolescent boys can also display self-harming behavior.

Self-injury is inflicting direct harm to one’s own body, without the intention of committing suicide. It can include cutting, biting, scratching, burning, and bruising the skin. Treating self-harm in adolescence is multifaceted because there are multiple reasons why an adolescent might engage in self-injury. For instance, self-harm is often a way to cope with intense emotions, to calm and soothe, to feel more alive if they feel disconnected or numb, or to release pent up anger. For this reason, part of the treatment itself is to tenderly support an adolescent in getting in touch with the reason behind their behavior.

There are many forms of self-mutilation that are accepted in society and not seen as indicative of a psychological disorder. For example, adolescents might tattoo their skin, get a piercing, or athletically sculpt their body. Another form of hurting the body that is socially acceptable is male circumcision, often performed for religious reasons. Also, there are indigenous tribes in Africa that engage in scarification, which is the practice of lacerating or puncturing the skin to produce decorative scars. This practice is rarely performed among teens in Western society.

Instead, adolescents typically engage in self-harming behavior because they lack healthier coping mechanisms. To treat a teen who engages in this behavior might first require having him or her undergo a psychological evaluation. In this way, a possible diagnosis can be determined and from this treatment can ensue.

Part of treatment is assessing the reason for the self-harm, such as those listed above. Once the reason behind the self-mutilation is identified, alternative coping mechanisms can be provided. For instance, if a teen needs to release tension or vent anger, he or she might engage in vigorous exercise, punch a cushion or mattress, scream into a pillow, squeeze a stress ball, make some noise such as playing an instrument, banging on drums or even pots and pans.

If an adolescent is cutting to calm and soothe, he or she might take a bath or hot shower instead, or participate in a yoga class, cuddle with a dog or cat, wrap up in a warm blanket, watch a relaxing movie, get a massage, or listen to soft music.

If a teen is using self-injury as a way to feel alive again and to avoid feeling disconnected or numb, it might be helpful to have him or her call a friend instead, take a cold shower, or eat something with a strong taste or spice.

Self-mutilation can also be a function of certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or anti-social personality disorder. For this reason, obtaining a diagnosis first can be an important part to treating self-harm in teens.




Hicks, J.W. (2005). 50 signs of mental illness: A user-friendly guide to psychiatric symptoms and what you should know about them. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press



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