Self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is defined as  the act of intentionally hurting oneself, in response to negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt or shame amongst others. Self-harm can include cutting, biting, burning, scratching, hair pulling, head banging, bruising, starving or self-poisoning. Self-harm is not within itself a diagnosable mental disorder, but can have adverse short and long term consequences so should be tackled appropriately.

For someone who does not struggle with self-harm, it can be very difficult to understand what positives the individual can get for self-harming. However, injuring oneself releases chemicals in our body called endorphins, whose function is to relieve pain and make us feel good. For this reason, self-harm can be addictive as it provides relief from negative emotions and helps the individual cope with the situation they would be facing.

There are many reasons why a teen may be using self-harm as a coping mechanism, and the reasons may be different for each person. These can include:

– as punishment in response to feelings of guilt or shame

– to replace emotional pain with physical pain, which is more tangible

– as a distraction from negative thoughts or emotions

– to feel something physical when they are otherwise feeling numb

– for control when feeling out of control

– to relieve built-up tension or emotions

– to communicate feelings of pain or hurt

Generally, the individual who is self-harming is not doing so with the intention to end their life. However, self-harm is serious and requires adequate attention. A trained mental health professional can work with your teen to help them understand their emotions and develop more healthy coping skills. It is important to listen to your teen and be prepared to offer support. Do not act shocked or make a scene out of their behaviour; they will likely feel ashamed about it and feel uncomfortable discussing it. Do not blame your teen or yourself but rather strive towards encouraging a supportive environment which is condusive to their overall wellbeing.

Nicole Borg is a medical student at the University of Malta and a childminder with Willingness. She has experience working with children with neurodevelopmental disorders and a great interest in psychiatry and development.