If you are a new foster parent of a teen who self-harms, you may be struggling with your requirements to keep the teen in your care safe. Self-harm in teens is more prevalent than many people realize. In fact, according to research, nearly one in 5 teen girls in 9th grade self-harms, most often by cutting and carving their skin. Here's what you need to know.
Understanding why the teen in your care self-harms
In order to help them and keep them safe, you first need to understand why they self-harm.
- Self-harm is a coping mechanism. People who have suffered from emotional abuse when they were younger typically have difficulties with handling emotions. When they have unwanted emotional experiences, they desperately want to avoid those unwanted emotions. One way to do that is to inflict physical pain on themselves so the physical pain overwhelms the emotional pain. This is called experiential avoidance.
- Self-harm is addictive. When you have an injury, even a self-inflicted one, your body releases endorphins to help you deal with the pain, both physically and emotionally. The good feelings that come from the release of endorphins can easily cause someone to become addicted to those good feelings. This is why people who self-harm repeatedly have a very difficult time stopping. They can become so addicted that they will use anything to self-harm, including rubbing a toothbrush or paper towel on their skin until their skin is raw.
Taking precautions to minimize the risks
Obviously, the teen will need to have counseling to deal with the emotional trauma issues that caused them to become addicted to self-harm. There are outpatient programs in most mental health clinics designed specifically to help those who self-harm. In addition to getting therapy and counseling, you will need to make your home as safe as possible. All sharp objects and abrasive materials should be kept out of the teen's reach and particularly out of the bathroom.
When your teen needs to shave, use tweezers, groom their nails, or use a curling iron or flat iron, you'll need to watch them until they have overcome their addiction to self-harm. However, this doesn't necessarily mean standing beside them as they get ready for school and activities, but keep the door to the bathroom open and let them know you are right there and will check in on them every few minutes. While it seems invasive to their privacy, it can build much needed trust between both of you which will allow them to experience good emotional feelings to combat the negative ones that are ingrained in them.