According to mental health experts, self-injury behavior among adolescents often masks deep psychological trauma caused by physical or sexual abuse, but research also indicates that cutting and other forms of self-harm are ways some teens cope to relieve stress or to express strong feelings of rage, sorrow, rejection, desperation, longing, or emptiness. Worse, the behavior can become compulsive as the brain starts to connect the false sense of relief from bad feelings to the act of cutting, and it craves this relief the next time tension builds.
The article below cites that “approximately 14 to 17 percent of children up to age 18 have deliberately cut, scratched, pinched, burned, or bruised themselves at least once (Whitlock, 2009), with 5 to 8 percent of adolescents actively engaging in this behavior (J. Whitlock, personal communication, September 27, 2009).” The articles also lists stressors that can play a role in self-harming behavior, and I’ve categorized three of the most common ones here:
Peer pressure – Students that lack strong social skills or those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may struggle to experience a sense of belonging, especially as students compete to buy expensive technological gadgets and designer clothes and shoes. Social networking can further alienate some students and make them vulnerable to cyberbullying. Some teens now refer to “MySpace” as “MeanSapce.”
Stress overload – Some students feel the pressure of having to juggle too many activites in order to gain admittance into a top college or university and worry that they’ll let down their parents and other significant adults in their lives if they don’t get accepted to their first or second school of choice. The author of this articles writes: “To cope with the stress, some of the more emotionally vulnerable adolescents turn to self-harm, resort to eating-distressed behaviors like bulimia, or engage in substance abuse.”
Poor modeling at home – Some teens witness the deficient ways their parents cope with stress by abusing prescription medication, drinking or overeating. “In families of self-harming adolescents, emotional disconnection and invalidation are common family dynamics.”
This article gives specific guidelines on ways schools can recognize and help students who are engaged in self-inflicting behaviors. One venue is by helping them become emotionally intelligent so that they acquire the coping and self-advocacy skills they need to manage strong emotions. Another antidote is to help students discover their unique abilities and gifts and to honor the many ways our students manifest these talents in the world. Three of LifeBound’s books: # 1 Success in Middle School, # 2 People Smarts for Teenagers and # 3 Gifts & Talents for Teenagers, are designed to help accentuate students’ strengths, while addressing the potential problems of growing up.
How can districts more effectively educate principals, teachers, counselors, and other faculty about self-harming behaviors and how to respond?
How can we infuse emotional intelligence into our schools to create a more positive culture where all students feel validated and welcome?
Education Leadership (Dec. 2009)
by Matthew D. Selekman
Student self-harming is one of the most perplexing and challenging behaviors that administrators, teachers, nurses, and counseling staff encounter in their schools. Approximately 14 to 17 percent of children up to age 18 have deliberately cut, scratched, pinched, burned, or bruised themselves at least once (Whitlock, 2009), with 5 to 8 percent of adolescents actively engaging in this behavior (J. Whitlock, personal communication, September 27, 2009).
Self-harming behavior is not a new phenomenon among adolescents. Mental health and health-care professionals have typically viewed such behavior as a symptom of an underlying psychological or personality disorder as a possible suicidal gesture suggesting the need for psychiatric hospitalization or as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual or physical abuse.
However, both research and practice-based wisdom indicate that the majority of self-harming adolescents do not meet the criteria for diagnosable DSM-IV1 psychological or personality disorders, have never had suicidal thoughts or attempted to end their lives, and have never experienced sexual or physical abuse (Selekman, 2009). Most self-harming adolescents use the behavior as a coping strategy to get immediate relief from emotional distress.
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