In our society we spend so much time and effort looking after our skin.
Collectively we spend millions of dollars each year on this vital organ; cleaning it, making it look nicer, making it smell better, putting clothes on it, decorating it with jewelry, piercings and tattoos. Some even have surgery to improve the look of their skin. Our skin is something we really value. No wonder we find it difficult to understand why some young people deliberately harm this important and valuable organ.
Over the past two weeks we have found that about one in eight kids intentionally harm themselves during their adolescent years. Most of these are normal young people who do so to help them deal with stressful thoughts and feelings. Self harm provides an effective, albeit temporary escape from confusing, painful emotions, because it distracts from this hidden pain, sometimes even makes it go away for a short time, or at least provides an alternative that is a bit easier to deal with.
So how can we help?
Just telling young people to stop isn’t that effective. It’s a bit like telling a person with a broken leg not to use their crutches. Young people tell us the key to helping them deal with their self harm is to help them deal with the painful emotions and thoughts that underlie their self harm. For some parents, this might mean re-opening the channels of communication: learning to listen to our kids in a different kind of way; non-judgmentally and in a way so that they feel they are being heard. Parents may need to suggest their adolescent talks to their school counsellor or maybe to a GP so they can get a referral to a psychologist who will help them understand some of the confusing thoughts and feelings and learn different strategies to deal with them.
If we can convey to our kids that we understand they are having a really difficult time, that we are not judging them and that we just want things to be better for them, they may be more inclined to listen to our advice that there is help available.
Remember the old saying “happy is the generation where the old listen to the young, because it follows that the young will listen to the old”.
So in summary, young people who are hurting themselves often don’t want to talk about their self-harm, but they may want us to recognize that life, or at least parts of their life, is distressing and that dealing with this distress is difficult. As adults, listening without judgment and offering to help our young people find someone to talk to about their distressing thoughts and feelings will go a long way towards providing a way out of this troublesome cycle.
If you are concerned about a young person who is self harming or you are a young person who wants help, call us at The LifeWise Centre or school counsellors, LifeLine, Kids Help Line, your GP or the local adolescent mental health service will be able to offer help.
Contributed by Dr Rob McAlpine, Clinical Psychologist with The LifeWise Centre