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Recognizing Self-Harm in Teens

teenage girl sitting on street curb recognizing self harm in teens in herself

Many people are aware of the phenomenon of self-harm, but it remains greatly misunderstood. The American Psychological Association’s clinical term for self-harm, non-suicidal-self-injury (NSSI), points to a critical fact about self-harm: those who engage in these behaviors are not suicidal. However, repetitive NSSI is associated with severe mental health and behavioral issues. Further, adolescents who engage in self-harm and do not receive treatment are at an increased risk for deteriorating mental health conditions into adulthood, including suicide.

Discovering that your teen is self-harming is alarming, and many parents are unsure how to respond. Seeking professional treatment as soon as possible is critical. Researchers and mental health experts increasingly consider DBT the most effective tool for treating NSSI. If your teen self-harms, the dialectical behavior therapy program at Imagine Nampa can help. Contact us at 888.503.4604 to learn more.

Learn to Recognize the Signs of Self-Harm

Recognizing the signs of self-harm can be challenging because those who engage in it typically go to great lengths to hide it from friends and family. NSSI can take on many forms, but some of the most common acts include:

  • Cutting or carving the skin
  • Burning
  • Headbanging
  • Hitting or punching self or objects
  • Interfering with wound healing by picking or reopening them
  • Embedding objects under the skin
  • Ingesting dangerous chemicals
  • Purposefully breaking bones

Along with the physical signs of self-harm, parents and educators should be aware of the behavioral, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms. Consider the following:

  • Physical signs – Fresh scratches or cuts, bruises, scars, patches of missing hair, or broken bones
  • Behavioral signs – Wearing long sleeves and pants, even in hot weather; keeping sharp objects close at hand; impulsivity; needing to spend a lot of time alone; brushing off or making strange excuses for injuries
  • Cognitive signs – Persistent feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, or hopelessness; consistent doubts about personal identity
  • Psychosocial signs – Mood swings, depression, guilt, shame, self-hatred, extreme emotionality, or appearing emotionally numb

The average age on onset for NSSI is 14. The main reasons teens report engaging in self-harm are to escape or process painful or negative emotions and to communicate emotional distress to family and friends.

How a Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program Helps with Self-Harm

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) utilizes a range of therapeutic techniques to help teens identify and subsequently change behaviors that may trigger or perpetuate the cycle of self-harm.

Because hopelessness is one of the most significant risk factors for NSSI, therapists initially work with teens to instill a sense of hope that DBT will work and that the coping strategies and skills they learn can help change their circumstances.

There are four key components of DBT. Two focus on acceptance, and the other focus on behavioral change. They are:

  • Mindfulness – The first step to promoting acceptance teaches teens to observe their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without judgment and to be present at the moment.
  • Distress tolerance – This second acceptance skill helps teens to cope with challenging situations and emotional pain by accepting them for what they are and letting go of what they think they should be.
  • Emotional regulation – This teaches teens to identify specific emotions at the moment and learn how to control them and express them in healthy ways.
  • Interpersonal effectiveness – This teaches teens how to improve how they communicate in relationships with others, clearly state their needs, and set healthy boundaries.

The dialectical behavior therapy program at Imagine Nampa consists of individual therapy, group therapy, training for teens and families to teach emotional regulation skills, and phone access to the therapist outside of sessions. DBT gives teens practical, actionable skills to learn to increase self-awareness, develop healthy emotional regulation, reduce impulsivity, and manage healthy relationships.

Overcome Self-Harm at Imagine Nampa

Self-harm, or NSSI, is a complex issue that requires professional treatment. Teens who practice self-harm are experiencing significant mental health issues and are more likely to struggle with substance use disorders. Teens who engage in self-harm are not suicidal, but the risk for suicide increases if the underlying causes of self-harm are not addressed.

It is possible to overcome the cycle of self-harm through evidence-based mental health therapies, including DBT. Contact Imagine Nampa at 888.503.4604 to learn more about how our dialectical behavior therapy program can help your teen.