Suicide and Self Harm in Children and Teens

As a parent I try to ensure that my children are safe and protected.  I shield them from parts of the external world that may be adverse to their spiritual, moral and/or natural development.  This is the case for almost all parents, but what happens when children begin harming themselves? This is a reality that has become more and more prevalent  for a number of reasons (Bodkin, 2017), yet it remains a topic we often prefer not to talk about. More and more children I work with engage in some form of self-harm or have thoughts about suicide.  Schools I work with are developing curriculums to address this growing need. Parents, too, are seeking ways to help our children and teens safely through this growing problem.

Students experience external stressors and negativity that oftentimes become their inner reality.  The lies told to young adolescents become their internal dialogue and greatly impact how they shape their view of themselves.  With the explosion of social media over the past few years, a platform for children and teens to bully and belittle their peers has developed.  As more and more children are given phones at younger ages with little supervision, guidelines or directions, the effects of peer attacks are seen in lower self-esteem and a distorted self-image at younger ages.  Mistakes and imperfections are magnified and pain is felt more acutely by teens. The pain felt is intensified and turned inward, and more and more are trying to dispel this pain with cutting or other forms of self-harm.  Support can be found online for individuals who self-harm, but these connections can also promote unhealthy behaviors and help provide information on carrying them out discreetly. Parents can help by being cautious and prudent in monitoring and limiting the use of social media.  

There is no one single reason why teens and children self-harm.  When I ask them point blank, they answer, “to get a release,” “to punish myself,” “to feel control over the pain I’m experiencing,” “to feel something…”  Think of it this way, cutting becomes for individuals a means of coping with their unwanted emotions. It is, of course, a maladaptive way of doing so, like overeating, but it is an attempt to manage their emotions.

When parents learn that their child is self-harming they are often alarmed.  When children share that they are self-harming, they are seeking help to manage their emotions and need to know that we as the adults in their lives are able to help.  Embarrassment, shame and regret often accompany disclosures of self-harm. I often tell parents that when children disclose, they are not only seeking help, but are also searching for validation that they are still loved.  They know that this desire to hurt themselves is contrary to their desire for self-preservation and the value of human life, but they don’t know what else to do. As parents, we can be attentive to our children’s needs that are not being met and make ourselves present and safe bases for them to come to.  They are not wrong for feeling the way they do, and there is often a reason they are feeling the way they do. While working with suicidal and self-harming clients, coping skills are taught, but the majority of my work is healing past trauma, and challenging the lies about self aimed inwards in anger. The biggest lie they believe is that no one cares and no one loves them and that can be dispelled within the family by being visible signs of God’s love for them.  We can combat the negative messages encountered and internalized by providing positive encouragement in the home and challenging those messages. Encouraging positive interests, friendships and coping skills is a non-intrusive way to help your child find outlets to manage stress. Planning activities of shared interests not only provides time to practice and model these skills but also to connect, demonstrating a stable relationship of support. 

The issues that lead children to self-harm are often similar to those that lead to suicide attempts; however, studies are inconclusive regarding a link between the two (Greydanus, Apple 2011).  Suicide is filled with paradoxes and seeming contradictions. Often victims commit suicide because their longing for a state of perfection with no more tears, but those who persevere do so with the hope that they will find such a place.  Statistics on suicide show that the urge to commit suicide often only lasts less than 10 minutes (Deisenhammer et al, 2008). If a person can withstand 10 minutes, they are able to move beyond the desire to harm themselves. This is partly why suicide hotlines are able to make an impact in such a short amount of time.  Suicide has been called a permanent solution to a temporary problem. One of my favorite interventions with teens is to create a timeline of big events in their life and, estimating they live 80-90 years, to discuss all the events that they can look forward to accomplishing. The result is often that teens see that the problems they are facing are finite, limited in scope and worth persevering through.  

Recently a client shared an article on suicide by Anne-Marie Drew entitled For Those Thinking About Suicide, Prayers Help But Are Not Enough  in which she draws on research and her own experience with suicidal thoughts, arguing that sometimes the most we can do is to encourage individiuals with suicidal inclinations to withstand their dark nights and persevere to the next day (Drew, 2018).  Obstacles often seem insurmountable but are able to be dealt with by focusing on and overcoming the present moment. As parents we can provide our children with roots of resilience to withstand the onslaughts of doubt through attunement, practicing and modeling coping skills, and providing boundaries around social media.

If your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts please seek the help of a counseling professional.  


Peace, Mark Martinez MA, LPC

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