Self-harming teens – why do they do it?

Cutting, starving, bingeing, burning, drinking, drugs, promiscuity… these are the most popular ways for self-harming.

Many parents harbour a secret fear that the teenage years might bring these things.  At the same time, parents assume that their child won’t.  We protect ourselves by believing that teens that turn to self-harming behaviour come from other families, families with big problems, not families like ours.  Sadly, this is not so.  Self-harming is on the increase and is to be found in families of all backgrounds, all classes, all circumstances, and predominantly in teenage girls.

Research conducted by a team from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and the University of Manchester, provides specific evidence for Britain, confirming the World Health Organisation’s warning that the fastest-growing mental health problems in the world are among adolescents.  Boys are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems which we are forced to address, and girls to suffer emotional problems which are more often hidden.  In Britain the rate is rising, with one in five 15-year-old girls suffering from serious emotional problems.

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Teenage girls are under huge pressures, to look a certain way, to perform well at school, to be popular, and to have their feelings under control.  And yet a girl’s teenage years are often a time of great vulnerability -  with conflicting desires to fit in and to find herself, coinciding with the raging and confusing hormones of puberty, intense feelings, and a strong need to prove herself grown-up.  Alongside this, a teen girl often enters a time of discord with her parents, just when she desperately needs their love and encouragement, and finds herself turning to the immature advice of her peers.

As if this is not enough, teen brains are undergoing a substantial reconfiguration, which leaves them less able to think clearly for a few years.  A teenager’s heartbreak is more painful than an adult’s; her rage is more consuming; her fears are more paralyzing; just as her joy is more exhilarating. Simultaneously it becomes less acceptable to resort to her childhood releases of sobbing, tantrums, shrieks of delight, and shouts of frustration.  For many teen girls their feelings are just too much to manage and so they seek an escape (as many adults do) through no fault of their own or their family’s.

The break-up of a relationship brings to the surface how unloved and unlovable she feels.  This is easily translated into also feeling fat and ugly.  A snarky comment from a friend demonstrates the fragility of friendships that are relied upon for self-worth, and a girl can quickly feel totally isolated and alone.  Friction with parents gives rise to huge insecurity, as these are the people who are supposed to care no-matter-what; but this insecurity must be hidden from these same parents in a bid to prove independence.  A new purchase, or invitation, or compliment gives rise to a euphoric high – but more are needed to sustain it.  And all the while her teachers want better work, even university graduates no longer walk into jobs; her popularity is measured by the number of her social media friends, so she must keep up her contact; on-line porn is creating norms and expectations within romantic relationships making it harder than ever to say ‘No’; and the world calls to her to be taller, thinner, more tanned, groomed and gorgeous.

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For those who have never experienced the high of self-harming, these behaviours can seem inconceivable and impossible to understand.  Unfortunately, parents of teenagers often make the mistake of focussing on the harmful behaviour, rather than addressing the cause.  Exploring the source of the feelings of distress that lie behind that behaviour is the way towards no longer needing the coping mechanism of self-harming.

We all know the human instinct to cope with one pain by distracting ourselves with another.  When a girl’s feelings become too much to bear, another more controllable pain provides relief.  A sense of peace descends as the razor slices through her skin; thoughts of food (eating it or not eating it) take over from other more painful thoughts that otherwise circle round and round; drink and drugs temporarily numb her; sex takes over her mind for a short while, with the added benefit of feeling wanted, albeit briefly.

Unbearable feelings which seem out of a girl’s ability to control are calmed by exercising extreme self-control in some other area of life – whether it be over food, or pain, or the opposite sex.  To someone else it may seem as if the teen is out of control, but to her the deeply reassuring experience is of being in control.

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Do not believe your daughter to be immune.  No matter how happy you imagine her life to be, or stable her family, or good her friends, do not assume that she can always handle the intensity of teenage emotions.  Build a relationship with her that gives you regular opportunities for stepping out of everyday busy-ness and makes time to talk.  Listen to her, really listen.  And if you are going through a patch when closeness is tricky, persist, keep looking for ways of spending fun time together – and make sure that you are not the only woman in her life who cares.  Do not abandon her to the support of her peers only but build a circle of women who are actively involved in her life and who she can turn to if you are not the right support for just now.

And if your daughter is experiencing the urge to self-harm in any way, then don’t tackle it on your own – get professional support for her and for yourself.

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This is an excerpt from ‘Windfalls’ by Jean Hegland that gives an illuminating account of how self-harming behaviour starts and evolves, and what fuels it.

“Ruthlessly and without warning she cocked her wrist and thrust it against the hot edge of the iron.  The hurt was quick and wicked.  She made a little sound like someone else’s moan.  Tears flung themselves from her eyes, but she used her other hand to keep her wrist pressed against the iron.  This is me, she thought, burning, and for a moment she felt a kind of triumph that overshadowed all her pain.  When she could stand it no longer, she yanked her wrist away, first lifting it to her nose to sniff, and then hold it out so she could study the tidy white stripe of ash running like a broken bracelet along the inside of her wrist, across the tender skin where a razor might be pressed.  That was strange, she thought, pleased by her courage, by her ability to punish herself for her awkward size and awful name.   She imagined Sam seeing her wound and being impressed – and maybe even a little intimidated – by what she was capable of doing.

Looking at the burn on the pale inside of her wrist, she couldn’t keep from remembering Sam’s finger in her palm.  But somehow all the shame and confusion of that moment had vanished like a lick of spit against a hot iron.  She felt clear and focused, as near happy as she’d been in a long while.  This time, as she reached toward the iron, she had a swell of feeling that could only be known as hope…”

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“The stripes on Cerise’s wrists turned to scabs that cracked and caught on whatever she happened to brush against, and tore and bled.   Sitting in the back of US history or sophomore English or bonehead algebra, she sucked the ooze, thinking, This is me, and before the burns healed, she took the iron out again.

In the beginning she had almost hoped that someone would discover those burns, like a row of mouths seared shut inside each wrist – maybe one of the teachers at her school, or Sam, or even Rita (her mother). She’d imagined that person would ask her what had happened, and hoped that in explaining it to them, she would come to understand it, too.  She’d hoped that someone else would be able to give her the sympathy she craved, that someone else would finally recognize what she couldn’t seem to realize for herself.  Sometimes she even envisioned Sam running his fingertips across the rutted surface of her wrists, only in her daydream his fingers were cool and gentle, as tender as a girl’s.

At first she believed that things would change once someone noticed her wrists.  But later she began to be embarrassed by their ugly skin and ragged scabs.  The wrists of the other girls at school were fresh as clean sheets, and it wasn’t long before Cerise realised that there was something wrong with her, something sick and shameful about what she did.  She began to worry that her wrists would betray her, and she started wearing long-sleeved shirts that hung below her palms.  Now she dreaded being caught, dreaded being made to confess or to explain, dreaded having another of her weaknesses exposed to the whole school’s ridicule.  But every afternoon when she got home, she had to battle with that craving to burn herself.”

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Posted on 14 March 2013
Musings: Parenting girls, Parenting teenagers
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 or so comments

3 Responses to Self-harming teens – why do they do it?

  1. Mairi Stones says:

    Difficult to read but necessary blog post, thank you Kim. Though, as far as I am aware my daughter is not harming in these ways, she struggles with other issues and as I keep up the effort to reach out, to connect, to be there.
    I agree that it’s easy to think it won’t happen here, but it does and according to my daughter self-harming is definately going on, she knows about friends choosing this route.
    We as parents definitely need to be open to all possibilites and to try and stay aware even when it’s painful to do so. X

  2. Lynette says:

    My daughter self-harmed a year and a half ago and has stopped. She is in therapy, on medications, and seems to have stopped the behavior. So I am wondering… how is it that I am still so upset? I can’t get over it. She doesn’t know this of coarse, but I still cry myself to sleep over this. I am sick to my very soul. I now suffer severe depression that I can’t let go of this. And deep down, I never will. When my daughter picked up that razor blade, she chose a path that changed both of our psyches. Really, our whole family will never be the same. We were happy. I know we were. So why did my then,12 year old daughter, make a decision that will ultimately ruin my life, if not hers. She has told me she thought it was cool. My life is over. My heart is broken. She has her meds. She will grow up and move on. I will never let her know how she has broken me.

    • Kim says:

      I am sorry that you and your daughter have had this experience. You are clearly deeply affected and I wonder if you have had the opportunity of therapeutic help too, to help you through this?

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