Most people have occasional moments of letting emotion override the self-protection instinct. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever kicked something harder than your foot. But some people hurt themselves deliberately and regularly, and that causes worse problems than a temporary limp. This practice is called self-harm.
This behavior, also called self-injury or self-mutilation, typically co-occurs with addiction disorder or other mental illnesses. It’s a frightening scenario for the self-harmer’s loved ones. It’s frightening to self-harmers themselves, especially when they inflict worse wounds than intended. Yet even when they try to stop, an inner compulsion keeps driving them back to the practice.
What Self-Harm Looks Like
With milder forms, it can be hard to determine whether someone has a diagnosable self-injury issue or simply a nervous habit. After all, many youngsters bite their nails or twist their hair under stress. Others pick at scabs or skin tags. Even when such habits leave visible evidence, few call them actual self-harm unless they reach the point of inflammation, bruises or (in the case of scabs) indefinite delay in wound healing.
The opposite extreme are self-harmers who end every round in serious need of a first aid kit. Best known are the “cutters,” who use knives or other sharp objects to draw their own blood. Others may burn themselves with matches or bite off chunks of skin. Occasionally, self-inflicted injuries prove fatal.
Wherever behavior falls on the harm spectrum, true self-harmers are secretive. A nail-biter may be embarrassed about the habit, but not to the point of avoiding all settings where he might be caught in the act. Someone who compulsively cuts themselves, however, is far more likely to hold off until he’s in his own room with the door locked. Self-harmers are also deliberate (not absent-minded about it like typical “nervous habit” types) and often ritualistic.
Why Do Teens Self-Harm?
The typical self-harmer dislikes himself and feels life is out of his control. Full of painful tension that he fears talking about or doesn’t know how to put into words, he seeks to figuratively release it through physical means. If guilt is mixed with the self-dislike, he may also feel the need to punish himself by hurting himself. Or he may be so emotionally numb that physical pain provides temporary relief by proving he’s still alive.
Whatever the motivation in any one case, repeated self-harm always occurs in connection with serious psychological issues, and, if not dealt with, is likely to progress to worse self-injury, substance abuse, severe mental illness and often accidental death or suicide.
Is Your Son Self-Harming?
On top of the other issues involved, male self-harmers may be doubly ashamed at having what’s commonly considered a female problem. And parents may fail to recognize self-harm signs if they think, “That doesn’t happen to boys.” But while girls and women do constitute the majority, one in four self-harm episodes involves males.
Your son may have a self-harming problem if he:
– Starts wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants all the time, even in hot weather
– Has unexplained blood spots or burn marks on his clothing
– Seems to be using bandages or other first aid supplies behind your back, and is evasive when asked about it
– Is seen with sharp objects or other potentially dangerous items for which he has no obvious use
– Becomes increasingly withdrawn and difficult to talk to
What You Can Do
The first thing to do is confront the situation immediately: especially if drugs or mental illness are involved, delay could mean the difference between life and death. Tell your son what you’ve observed and why it worries you. If he refuses to talk about it, insist kindly but firmly that he be evaluated by a doctor and therapist. Whether he cooperates immediately or not, get advice from a mental health professional and arrange therapy for the whole family, plus any other treatment your son needs.
Long-term recovery requires that you stay understanding and empathetic, all the more so since your son is likely dealing with low self-esteem and perhaps long-hidden trauma. Support him with all the gentle encouragement you can. Let him pamper himself with favorite activities (including some that build his confidence through productivity) and extra rest. Don’t feel so sorry for him that you let him shirk all responsibility—that can only reinforce the sense of helplessness and isolation he’s battling—but be extra careful not to criticize, judge, demand too much or take his concerns lightly.
And as with any addiction, don’t feel all hope is lost if he relapses. He—and you, too—can’t fail while willingness to try again endures.
Let Us Help You Stop the Harm
If your son is practicing self-harming behavior and also exhibiting warning signs of drug abuse, ARCH Academy can help you make a plan for recovery. Our therapy- and academic-focused programs provide inpatient care to give 14–18-year-old boys a fresh start. Our staff is trained in dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses. Use our online form or call (800) 646-9998 to begin your family’s recovery journey.