From the day they are born we worry about them. When our babies become teenagers, the worries don’t stop but multiply. We know that life is not easy for young people – adolescence can bring with it pressure at school, pressure to perform, and pressure to fit in. The list is long and all at a time when our children often haven’t worked out who they are or what they might want to do in the future.
As parents, we do our best to support our children. But sometimes, we may begin to feel more and more disconnected from them. How can we tell if it is just puberty and the waves of increasing independence, or if it is something more serious?
Psychological problems among young people are very common and many parents may not realise that self-harm is also fairly common. Self-harm means deliberately hurting your body. For some young people, self-harm is a one off event, but for others it can become a behaviour pattern that is difficult to change. Research studies show that among 15-19 year old Australians, 17% of females and 12% of males have reported self-harm at some point in their life. Self-harming behaviour can be a sign of mental illness, or suicidal intent, however not everyone who self-harms is suicidal. Most self-harm happens in response to intense emotions, and may lead to temporary relief – some people report that they have no other way of expressing or dealing with their emotions and what they are feeling and thinking.
Self-harm can be a very secretive act. Anica Spatz, a psychologist specialising in deliberate self-harm and trauma lists five signs that your teenage son or daughter might be self-harming.
- Physical signs
Cutting, scratching, pulling out hair, hitting, burning, overdosing and poisoning oneself can all be acts of deliberate self-harm. Some leave obvious scars on the skin, some are harder to spot.
- Dramatic changes in mood
Going through an emotional rollercoaster every day? Your teenager is happy one minute but cannot control their angry outbursts the next. Emotion regulation problems are often related to self-harm and are a sign that your child might need help.
- Noticeable change in character
Your teenager has not been their usual self for a while. They have been tearful or irritable most days. They do not enjoy the things that they used to enjoy anymore. It is really hard to motivate them to do anything. Your child’s self-esteem seems to have dropped significantly. Also, if your teenager has begun drinking alcohol or started using drugs, this is a clear warning sign.
- Social withdrawal
Most days, your teenager just will not talk to you anymore. They would rather lock themselves in their room or the bathroom and are often looking for opportunities to be home alone. At times, friendships can suffer under their difficulties that accompany self-harm.
- Covering up
Kids who self-harm may wear long-sleeve tops and long pants even in warm weather to hide scars or injuries. It’s important to know that cutting is not always limited to the arms, but that thighs and the skin of the abdomen often are harmed, too. With visible scars, teenagers who self-harm will avoid going to the swimming pool. Sometimes scars, burns and bruises are covered up with make-up.
If you discover your child is self-harming
Discovering that your child is self-harming is never easy. Anica recommends to stay as calm as you can and tell them you understand that self-harm is a coping mechanism. Your child may be ashamed or worried about being forced to stop – it is important to stay calm and encourage them to speak to a professional who can help them either resolve problems or find healthier ways of coping.
Don’t be afraid to directly ask your child if they are suicidal, and contact your local hospital if you think they are, or the suicide call back service on 1300 659 467.
As parents, we need to see self-harm as a signal to openly communicate with our child and seek professional advice. A psychologist can determine how extensive the problem is and provide specialist help to help your child develop skills so they don’t have to rely on self-harming to manage difficult situations, feelings or memories.
Dr Amanda Mullin & Anica Spatz are Psychologists at Mindworx Psychology, a leading family Psychology Practice in the Hills District.
Mindworx Psychology offers specialist help for self-harm and related psychological disorders. Whether you are worried about your child’s mood or have identified self-harm as the main concern, help is available.
Anica runs an emotion regulation group for adolescents with low mood at Mindworx Psychology, as well as an emotion regulation group for adults based on Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skills. For further information call 8355 3634 or visit mindworxpsychology.com.au
Your GP is always a good place to begin looking for help, although you can also see a psychologist privately without a GP referral. Other sources of help and information include:
Beyondblue’s youth program, Youthbeyondblue, aims to empower young people aged 12–25, their friends and those who care for them to respond to anxiety and depression.
24 Hour Helpline: 1300 22 4636
Kids Helpline is Australia’s national 24/7 telephone and online counselling and support service for young people aged between 5 and 25 years.
24 Hour Helpline: 1800 55 1800.