How can I help a self-injuring teen?

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Answered by: Amanda, An Expert in the Parenting Troubled Teenagers Category
There are many things you can do to help a self-injuring teen. The first thing to do is to make sure that the teen knows they can come to you, no matter what is going on. However, do NOT make this promise if you do not intend to keep it. The last thing a teen needs at this point is another broken promise.

You cannot become upset or horrified by what they reveal to you. You can and should express concern for them and their safety, though. The best way to help a self-injuring teen is to assure them that they can trust you. Proving this will take some time, so do not expect them to open up to you right away. Depending on your relationship with them, they may start with small, seemingly minor things. Treat them as important, and acknowledge the trust they are putting in you.

And as they do open up to you, listen with compassion and understanding. Ask if they want you to help come up with solutions, or if they just want you to listen. And if all they want is for you to listen, that is ALL you should do at that point. If they want you to help come up with solutions, ask them to give their input for the solution. Let them know that you care about them, and love them in spite of what they are doing to their body.

There are many ways to self-injure. Some people who self-injure will cut. Others will burn themselves. Still others will hit their head on walls. And still others are even more creative in how they choose to harm their self. Regardless of their method, there is almost always a sense of secrecy about it, and a compulsion to hide the behavior and the results of it. Ask them what method they are using. Tell them that you want to know every time the feel like hurting themselves, and that you want to help them stop, but that you understand if they are not able to.

Self-injury has been proven to be an addiction just like drugs or alcohol. Because of this, it is not necessarily possible to decide to stop and just walk away from it. There are likely to be many false starts before they are able to remain clean for long periods of time. And even if they do manage to remain clean for long periods of time, an overload of stress can cause them to relapse, just as it would for a drug user. In some cases, tattoos and piercings are used to get the same results.

There are mixed views in the professional community as to the acceptability of this behavior. Many mental health issues can co-occur with self-injury, but a teen who has resorted to self-injury is NOT likely to be suicidal. Some of the other mental health issues to look for are eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, bi-polar disease, post traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders.

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