Self Harm and Injury: How to Help

As a parent, you can help your child by teaching him or her how to better communicate and manage stress.

Cutting is an indicator of communication problems too. If teens are cutting, they are unable to verbalize and appropriately deal with their emotions, so they adopt an unhealthy means to express them. Talk with your child on a regular basis. Let your teen know you care about what he’s going through and that you’re available to talk about what he’s feeling. Help him find words to express what’s going on inside. Don’t assume he can do that effectively. Try to find an activity that just you and your teen can share, to give you a special bond.

Your child may also need your help learning how to deal with stress. Keep an eye on your child’s stress levels. What are things that put pressure on your child? Is her stress at a manageable level? If not, what can you suggest she do to reduce stress? Teach her about self-care.

You can also give your teen healthy ways to deal with stress. Get specific and practice the options. Maybe exercise or an enjoyable hobby will help. Have him make a menu of things he can do to cope with stress. It may take some time to develop a menu of stress-coping activities and ideas.

Be Alert

You can’t be lulled into complacency thinking that because your teen isn’t acting out that she’s fine. Be aware of signs that she could be cutting. Look for

  • scars on arm or legs (girls often cut on the stomach and breasts as well),
  • excusing wounds as a result of frequent accidents,
  • keeping sharp objects (razors, utility knives) on hand,
  • bloodstained towels, washcloths, and sheets,
  • wearing long sleeves or long pants, even when the weather is hot,
  • difficulties with relationships,
  • isolation for long periods of time,
  • making statements reflecting self-hatred or worthlessness (“I’m so stupid,” “I wish I’d never been born”).

If you notice any of these signs in your child, start a conversation. You could say something such as, “I’ve noticed some scars on your arms lately. If those scars could talk what would they say?” Don’t downplay it as a phase or a simple cry for help. While those who cut typically don’t do it as a way of attempting suicide, research suggests that 70 percent of kids who engage in self-harm will make at least one suicide attempt; 55 percent will make multiple attempts.[1]

Remember, the underlying issues of cutting are deep emotional pain and the inability to effectively communicate and manage emotional pain and deal with it in a healthy way.

Take Action

Cutting is a serious problem. If your teen is cutting, seek help immediately from a licensed mental health professional with experience in this area. Some forms of counseling will attempt to equip your teen with coping skills, as well as the means to articulate and communicate his feelings and tolerate stress better. Therapy may focus on those things even before the actual cutting is addressed. The idea is that if teens stop cutting but can’t deal with emotional pain in a healthy way, they’ll return to self-harming activities.

The Oxytocin Connection

Oxytocin, which is the body’s bonding hormone or the glue for relationship, is found to be low in people who self-injure. You can increase the levels of oxytocin by connecting with others and reducing stress. Safe touch and trusting relationships also help increase levels of oxytocin.

  1. Matthew K. Nock, et al., “Non-suicidal self-injury among adolescents: Diagnostic correlates and relation to suicide attempts,” Psychiatry Research, 144 (1): 65-72, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.496.7226&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Lesson Complete!