You have probably heard of it before. You may well know someone it has affected. Without question, it is a phenomenon on the rise in teen and even child culture, and has been for a decade or more. No matter whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, self-harm is a fact that is demanding our attention more and more, and is likely here to stay in our society.
I can remember my own introduction to the world of self-harm, in a seemingly insignificant way long ago. It was in grade seven, and a peer had numerous marks all over his arm, largely created from using his fingernail to scratch a single spot repeatedly until it bled. On one level it was a shocking sight, and I had no concept at the time of why anyone would feel driven to carry out this action. Nonetheless, it also didn't seem that surprising to me that this individual would harm himself, as it just seemed to fit his personality somehow, in a way that would have been difficult to describe.
Fast forward to 2014, and whether looking at Canada, British Columbia, or Kelowna itself, self-harm is a reality that knows no geographic boundaries. It is likely that 15% of the general adolescent population, many experts estimate, practice it in some form at any given time. Rather than a disorder or a disease with a known cure however, self-harm tends to instead be an indicator of emotional trauma for someone, and a sign of that person's efforts to relieve that trauma. Some of the most often stated reasons for cutting or mutilating oneself include:
- Release of pain or anxiety in a physical way, such that it seems to "drain" away for a time.
- Regaining a sense of control in a life that seems to have so little that one can control.
- A way to express emotional pain or feelings that are difficult to put into words.
- Being able to meet a need for belonging by cutting together (in person or online) with others experiencing similar feelings of pain.
Interestingly enough, many teens I have spoken with are not necessarily trying to find a way to stop self-harming. It has simply become their most effective means of meeting a need to relieve emotional pain and stress, for example, and it would be foolhardy to suggest they stop cutting without addressing their reasons for engaging in the act in the first place. It is important to remember this principle: all behavior is purposeful. This is a trap many well-meaning parents and even therapists can fall into, in my experience - spending a great deal of time and energy finding a cure for what is likely the symptom of a problem, rather than finding a remedy for the underlying pain and trauma that has probably caused much of the self-harm practice in the first place.
While we can never jump in and solve all the emotional stress someone is feeling, even in our own children, there is certainly something we can do that limits the chances self-harm will begin or become adopted as a regular practice by a young person. It is very simple: we can express an authentic desire to spend time together, talk about a variety of topics (not just "the problem"), and engage in any number of enjoyable activities together. In short, we invite a child or teen over time to become an active, willing partner in our own lives, and hopefully receive an invitation to become part of theirs as well. When we invest in relationship authentically, and without an agenda or timeline, we can help a young person to feel heard and understood. This is perhaps the greatest gift any parent or caregiver can offer, and the most reliable at-home therapy one can choose.
Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice: