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Teenagers and Self-Harm: Talking About Cutting And Self-Injury Behaviors

Most parents accept that they should have conversations with their teen about topics such as drug use and sexuality. Fewer par­ents consider discussing the topic of self-injurious behavior, until they observe cuts, wounds or burns on their teen.

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There are compelling reasons why this topic should not be ignored. In fact, a discussion is prefer­able before the onset of any self-injurious behavior.

To begin with, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that a teen who has been exposed to someone who self injures is more likely to experiment with this behavior, a phenomenon psychologists call “the conta­gion effect.” Given that one study found that approximately fifty percent of high school students reported engaging in some form of self-injury (biting self, cutting/carving skin, hitting self on pur­pose, burning skin), your teen is likely to know someone who self injures. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that those who do self injure are at two times greater risk for completed suicide.

So, don’t delay the conversation.

4 Tips for a Conversation about Self-Harm:

1. Watch a movie.

Because a movie is about someone else, re­luctant teens will sometimes be more willing to talk to their parents about difficult or sensitive topics when portrayed in a movie or in the media. Take time to discuss the movie af­terwards and ask open-ended questions in a curious manner. For example, you may ask, “Why do you think the girl in the movie cut herself?” These types of discussions can lead to conversations about themselves or even their friends who may self injure.

2. Don’t overreact.

If your teen tells you (or you discover) that they are engaging in self-injury don’t overreact in such a way that you shame them about their behavior (e.g., “What is wrong with you!” or “Why would you do that to your own body?”) There is immense shame associated with self-injury. By overreacting or shaming your teen, you run the risk that they will shut down completely. Tell your teen that you are concerned and worried and that you want to help them.

3. Don’t under react.

If you discover that your teen is engag­ing in self-injury, don’t under react either. Often parents con­clude that this is a “phase” or that their teen is “doing this for attention.” Anytime someone engages in self-injurious behavior, profes­sional attention is needed. Let your teen know that there are mental health professionals who can teach more adaptive and skillful ways to manage their emotions.

4. Provide unconditional acceptance.

The teenage years are turbulent ones indeed. Provide a safe harbor for your teen. Let them know that regardless of what they do, you love them unconditionally. This does not mean that you approve of their every action, but it does mean that you uncondition­ally love and approve of them as a person.

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Denise D. Ben-Porath, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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