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How parents can prevent teenage self-harm


This article is written by Dr. Daniel Daly, Boys Town. It was published on  April 5, 2018.

After suffering in silence for decades, the conversation surrounding mental illness has not only taken off, but it has grown louder and more fervent in recent years. Celebrities, mothers, and military personnel have all joined the conversation about anxiety, depression and addiction.

These conversations are important and need to continue, with the addition of one mental health issue that often gets overlooked: self-harm.

Consider: Over the past five years, the Boys Town National Hotline has received more than 10,000 contacts from teenagers across the country about self-harm, and many more about mental health. In Iowa alone, where Boys Town started providing Home Family Services in 1989 and last year directly served over 2,000 kids, 1,423 Iowans reported mental health concerns, including 77 concerns about self-harm.

These statistics support the claim made in a 2017 Boys Town National Hotline report that teenagers are struggling with mental anguish more than ever and cannot identify the cause of their pain. Many of these teens are self-harming to cope. 

Negative coping skills like cutting often seem to work at first, but these negative and unhealthy responses just lead to more stress and become an ongoing cycle. It is important to address the underlying cause of emotional anguish and teach effective coping skills.

Here are some additional tips for parents with a teenager struggling with self-harm.

  • Rather than trying to imagine what they are thinking, focus on the behavior, and what you can see, hear or measure.
  • Ask them why they are harming themselves. Many do it to relieve emotional pain and pressures, or they feel numb and it makes them feel something.
  • Let them know you are going to help them figure out why they feel the need to cut, and help them develop some other ways to deal with those feelings like journaling or exercising.
  • Keep them close to ensure their safety and help them resist the urge to self-harm. Keep them engaged and interacting with the family. Don't allow them to isolate themselves.
  • Remove any and all sharp objects from around your home that could be used for cutting, and let them know you are doing this to better ensure their safety. Check your child's room, backpack, pockets and anywhere else a sharp object could be placed.
  • Schedule an appointment for your child with a mental health professional. Let your child know that this is serious and you are planning to do everything in your power to help them better handle the difficult issues life presents.

Self-harm continues to be a top concern among teens reaching out to the Hotline, but experts are optimistic about teens reaching out for assistance. The increased conversation around mental health will hopefully encourage more teens to reach out when they are struggling to fight the urge to self-harm, and parents can help their teens by talking about it openly and working together to fight the stigma.

Dr. Daniel Daly is Boys Town director youth care emeritus. Boys Town is celebrating its centennial this year. It started providing Home Family Services in Iowa in 1989.