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The many ways teens act out to harm themselves- and what you can do about it (Part 3 of 3)

April 02, 2017

I hope that by reading Parts One and Two of this series where we talked about the different ways self harm can manifest itself in teenagers and the different reasons why teens engage in self harm, you’ve gained a wider perspective about self-harming behaviors, what they are and why teens do it. This topic is often clouded in misconceptions and caregivers often assume their teen knows better than that. However, even if your teen does know better than that, it is important to be prepared in the event he starts doing it. Our responses as caregivers are the most important factors in helping them stop. This third part will offer practical ideas to help teens who self-harm.

This topic is often clouded in misconceptions and caregivers often assume their teen knows better than that.

Educate yourself 

Be informed of local resources and those therapists who specialize in the treatment of trauma in teens. Not all therapists are good at connecting with teens and/or those who self-injure. Keep in mind that self-harming behavior often becomes worse and will not just “go away” on its own or by giving them a lecture. Different schools and other organizations are constantly providing trainings to caregivers. These trainings are often free and full of practical information. If you cannot find one of these trainings, a great website to get information is sioutreach.org. 

Be trauma-informed

Trauma changes the brain and the mind. We have to keep this in the back of our minds as we interact with them and not take things so personally. We have to keep in mind that the earlier the trauma, the more difficulties we will see. Also, the closer they were to the offender the more emotions they will experience. Remember that traumatic events can be things such as constantly moving, separation, being bullied (cyber bullying), being unfriended and blocked on social media, etc. It’s not always the big traumatic events such as rape, witnessing someone getting killed, or being kidnapped. 

Provide an environment where teens experience the 4 S’s: Seen, Soothed, Safe, & Secure
Reduce trauma triggers. Many times our homes may not be the most conducive for teens to feel safe or comfortable to talk to us. Be mindful of where you’re having a conversation. Is the T.V. off? Is your phone out of sight? Are any other kids around? Do you have enough time to have a conversation? Are you listening with the intention to understand or with the intention to respond?

Be tourists in a foreign land 

Grandmother and Granddaughter Last year I went to France. Since I don’t speak French, I often needed someone who could interpret for me but not always. However, what I did need was to have an open attitude and some planning about my days. When I visited the Louvre museum, I had to allow the guide to tell me where to go, the best place to start to avoid the crowds, the best times to see the shows. Sometimes they would tell me about a room, a painting, a sculpture. Other times, they gave me a device – it looked like a bulky cellphone where I could press a number and get information in English so I could understand. I didn’t go in there assuming I knew better and just make my way without any maps or guidance. It would have wasted my time and made me miss out on very important details and experiences. Imagine that a teen is like a museum and when you first meet him, it’s your first time in the museum. He is the guide and there are many areas inside this teen you need to explore. Having this attitude will make them open up to you and tell you things they wouldn’t even tell their friends.  Other times, they will find other means to communicate with you – texts, letters, etc. This is where influence happens. When they have opened up their world to you.

Be direct and honest 

Teens usually appreciate directness and honesty even when they don’t like what they’re hearing. They are good at reading between the lines so they often feel insulted if something is implied and spoon-fed to them. 

Be engaged in their treatment

If you’re taking your teen to counseling, make sure you’re involved in the sessions. As therapists, we love to talk to caregivers and collaborate because we understand the importance of having a team approach. What we don’t like is when caregivers just “drop them off” to us and expect a miraculous change without doing anything on their part. Caregivers can often become an obstacle rather that an ally in helping teens heal. Communicating_Mother_Daughter

Be mindful of your own experiences

No one has had a perfect life. We have all gone through difficult events, some more than others. These events influence and color our perceptions. In order to help teens who self-harm, it’s important to be mindful of how these experiences guide our responses. We don’t want to have extreme responses that are detrimental. 
Finding out that your teen is self-harming can be shocking. It’s something we never expect and it can be hard to understand why. Having the awareness and knowledge to help can be crucial in helping our teens navigate their emotions and overcome their pain. It’s not about “making them understand” that it’s wrong, but it’s about helping them build more resilience and love for themselves.

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