Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Adolescent Self-Injury

Self-injury typically refers to a variety of behaviors in which an individual intentionally inflicts harm to his or her body for purposes not socially recognized or sanctioned and without suicidal intent. Self-injury can include a variety of behaviors but is most commonly associated with  intentional cutting, carving, or puncturing of the skin; scratching; burning; ripping or pulling skin or hair; self-bruising (through punching objects with the intention of hurting oneself or punching oneself directly).

Many adolescents who self-injure do so in secrecy and this secrecy is often the clearest red flag that something is wrong. Although it is normal for adolescents to pull away from parents during times of high involvement with friends or stress, it is not normal for adolescents to be withdrawn, physically and emotionally, for long periods of time. It is also important to note that not all people who self-injure become distant and withdrawn—youth who put on a happy face, even when they do not feel happy, may also be at risk for self-injury or other negative coping behaviors.

Some other signs include cut or burn marks on arms, legs, abdomen; discovery of hidden razors, knives, other sharp objects and rubber bands (which may be used to increase blood flow or numb the area); spending long periods of time alone, particularly in the bathroom or bedroom; wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather, such as long sleeves or pants in hot weather.

Address the issue as soon as possible. Don’t presume that your child will simply “outgrow” the behavior and that it will go away on its own. (Though keep in mind this can and does happen for some young people–some do mention “outgrowing” their self-injury. This typically occurs because they learn more adaptive ways of coping).

Try to use your concern in a constructive way, by helping your child realize the impact of his/her self-injury on themselves and others. It is most important to validate your child’s feelings. Remember that this is different from validating the behavior. Parents must first make eye contact and be respectful listeners before offering their opinion. Speak in calm and comforting tones. Offer reassurance. Consider what was helpful to you as an adolescent when experiencing emotional distress.  If your child does not want to talk, do not pressure him/her. Self-injury is a very emotional subject and the behavior itself is often an indication that your child has difficulty verbalizing his/her emotions.

For more information visit the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults at http://www.crpsib.com/userfiles/factsheet_aboutsi%284%29.pdf

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