Why are our teen girls cutting themselves?

by Laurel Pretorius
Teen suicide: is there a mental health crisis?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Teens cutting themselves may feel like a subject far removed from our lives or it may be one that is close to home, but no matter how we view it, it’s a growing trend that is posing a real threat to our kids, and more especially to our daughters says Laurel Pretorius.

Recent research from GP practices across the UK shockingly found self-harm among girls aged 13 to 16 had risen by 68% over the past three years. Further research showed that according to emergency room trends in the US, there’s been a 50% increase in reported self-injury among young females since 2009. In South Africa, the most current articles I read all report that self-harm is a worrying trend with UNICEF declaring it a growing phenomenon among SA teens.

I thought about the teen girls I know who are obsessed with cutting and have the scars to prove it. The threat of it has been an unwelcome guest in my own home. As a mom, to see young, tender skin marked for life by self-inflicted cuts, is deeply disturbing. It seems indicative of where we are as a society. Why are our teen girls hurting themselves more now than ever before? And should we parents be concerned that this cutting means our teens may be suicidal?

What is self-harm?

Healthline.com explains it as “deliberately injuring yourself without life-ending intent”. Belinda Gruenbaum, a counsellor at the Family Life Centre backs this up by saying, “While they share the same intended goal which is pain relief, the outcomes of suicide and self-harm differ somewhat.”

Teens who cut do it to escape intense mental pain, negative emotions as well as overwhelming frustration and anxiety and to feel immediate relief, while those who are suicidal feel intense mental and emotional turmoil accompanied with feelings of despair, hopelessness and depression that don’t go away.

Gruenbaum also says parents need to be vigilant if their teen is self-harming. If they see signs of self-harm coupled with signs of depression – feelings of helplessness, despair, isolation, loss of interest, low energy, disrupted sleep patterns, changes in weight or appetite and having thoughts of ending their life – then the behaviour may tend to be more suicidal and you should seek professional help.

Check out: 7 steps to mental health during motherhood

Why is cutting out of control?

“This could be due to the heightened levels of anxiety, stress and unrealistic lifestyle demands teenagers are subjected to, as well as their increasingly consistent use of social media exposing them to negative self-harm content which places ideas in their minds,” says Gruenbaum.

By doing research, it doesn’t take much to join the dots and realise that the abnormal rise in teens self-harming can be linked to the advent of social media. Our kids are in chatrooms like Whatsapp, 24/7 where topics such as self-harm are discussed ad nauseum and become “normalised” by their peers. Previous research has shown a “strong link” between using online forums and self-harming teens.

Also, in the age of selfies, online status, updates and 24/7 engagement on social platforms where it is all about appearance over content, a new competitive, high anxiety culture has been born and teen girls take the brunt of it during the most vulnerable and volatile phase of their lives. Social media pressure is ever-present. It doesn’t just follow our teens home; it enters their safe havens. It even goes on holiday with them. It is inescapable.

However, if your child showed signs of self-harm as a toddler when frustrated or angry e.g. banging their head against the wall or pulling out their hair, this could indicate neurodiversity such as possibly being on the autism spectrum. This may predispose them to self-harm later in life as a way of dealing with painful emotions and it’s wise to consult a mental health professional.

The signs of cutting

The signs of teen cuttingThe obvious signs to look for are unexplained cuts. Your teen will start wearing long sleeves no matter how hot it gets, and they will be resistant to show off other parts of their body. They may flinch in pain when you touch their arm and you might wonder why sharp objects such as a knife, razor, and nail clippers, start making an appearance in their bedroom. Also, bloody tissues may show up in the bins.

Visit Maintain your mental health

How parents can help

While there may be several underlying reasons for this destructive behaviour, one this is certain: it’s a sign that these kids are struggling with their mental health. Self-harm is a high-risk behaviour that, if unaddressed, can result in permanent scarring, disfigurement and accidental death, so it is advisable that parents seek professional help for their teens.

Here are 5 ways Gruenbaum suggests that parents can help their self-harming teens:

  1. Show love, support and understanding.
  2. Create a space of warmth, trust and non-judgement – listen to the way your teenager may be feeling.
  3. Assist your teenager to find healthy coping skills.
  4. Try deep breathing, grounding and relaxation exercises.
  5. Encourage journaling as a way for them to externalise their feelings.

It’s hard to witness your precious child in emotional pain. It’s even harder to discover that they have been hurting themselves physically to try overcoming the pain. You may feel confused and overwhelmed. Avoid blaming yourself, seek help and take one step at a time to assist your child through the healing process.

Also read: Teen Suicide- a mental health crisis
Anxiety & depression in kids

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