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Self-harm in adolescents

Have you ever heard of the concept of Autoaggression? Up to a certain point, I had only encountered this concept in psychology textbooks.

And so my first year as a school psychologist, one day there was a girl from the fourth grade standing in my office. She wanted to talk to me about something I don't remember anymore. When she was adjusting her sleeve I noticed cuts on her arm.⠀

I had a good, friendly relationship with this student. It was not the first time the girl came to me with some problems, concerns. The fourth grader could not deny it and confessed that she cut herself with a knife. This makes her feel better.

Many teenagers regulate their overwhelming feelings in this way through self-harming: scratching, biting, burning, tearing out their hair. Also, abusing alcohol, drugs, not eating enough or overeating can be forms of self-harm.

Causes of self-harm: loneliness, self-loathing, relationship problems, isolation, constant pressure from adults, feeling: "I'm not good enough."

Self-harm is a cry for help! But do parents want to see it that way? 

In my girl's case, her mother told me that a week locked up at home would fix the situation. Added reproaches, accusations toward the child, "I do everything for you, what are you missing?" Some parents choose to avoid the problem, hoping for self-resolution. Unfortunately, this only makes things worse.

What should you do if you see signs of Autoaggression?

  1. Talk openly with your teenager, maintaining a sense that he or she can trust you. Without getting rebuked in return.
  2. Remain calm. Don't show anger, misunderstanding, or horror. Don't demand a promise not to do it. This reinforces the child's shame about his "ruined life".
  3. Autoaggression is more often than not an isolated incident. It can be practiced among friends. Explain to the child that it is a cry for help. Talk to him or her about healthy ways to cope with the emotions of fear, anger, sadness.
  4. Find alternative ways to regulate stress. For example, taking a cold shower, drawing on your hand instead of a cut, pressing ice on your skin, running, writing the feeling on paper.
  5. Explain that self-indulgence is only a short-term distraction. The body releases endorphins, which sort of protect the body from pain. They only relieve it for a moment. In return, the aggravation of feelings such as shame and guilt increases.

If your child is closed off toward you, there may be a reason to seek help from a psychologist. But keep in mind, you will also need to work on yourself.

My story with my fourth grader ended with me working through this situation with her as part of her school communication. This teenager is quite strong in character. So after six years I met her. She came to me as an intern. Fortunately, her history of self-harm was safely, irrevocably resolved.


Valentina Gerasimov

educational psychologist, child and teenager coach 

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