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The teenage pressure cooker and self-harm | GUEST COLUMN
BY TARA MURPHY
Do you remember being a teenager?
If you do, then you remember the anxiety you felt about fitting in, the social pressure, and the constant stress happening in your life.
Today, like when you were younger, every teen is worried about being popular, but for today’s teens, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pressure to succeed academically, to be good at sports or other extracurricular activities and to thrive socially causes immense pressure for today’s teen. This pressure increases as the school year goes on, like a pressure cooker – building slowly until bubbling over.
How are those pressures playing out? At Bainbridge Youth Services we see depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, eating disorders, suicidal ideation and drug/alcohol use as the issues teens face today – stemming from stress.
There are many unhealthy ways to cope with stress, but self-harm seems to be on the rise among our youth (both girls and boys) today. Self-harm usually manifests as cutting, primarily on the arms and legs. Cutting often gives teens a sense of power or control in an overwhelming situation and is especially risky, because it is an addictive behavior. When someone cuts, the brain releases endorphins that help the body relax and therefore it can be a very effective interruption to a deep and negative emotional spiral. Cutting is often a result of internalizing perfectionism or dealing with conflict at home or with peers and usually is accompanied by depression. Teens who cut often take responsibility for things outside of their control and feel afraid of “burdening” their families with their struggle, making it a stubborn and secretive behavior.
As a parent what should you look for? Isolation and secretiveness. You might notice that your teen isn’t as engaged with you or their peers and does not enjoy activities as much as he/she used to. They might be spending an excessive amount of time shut up in their room, disengaged and even lethargic. Teens who are cutting might wear long-sleeved shirts or long pants in hot weather to hide cuts or have excuses about cuts and scratches.
So if you notice these signs, what should you do?
Do not freak out. It is important to respond in a calm, compassionate and curious way and not with shame, anger or judgment. Offer open ears and arms. Let them know that you are paying attention and care about their emotional well-being, not just their success.
Do not demand they stop. The behavior is indicative of a deeper emotional struggle that will take time to heal. Instead, offer a willingness to listen and be inquisitive about their emotional process. A lot of teens who cut have already internalized the message that they are “messed up” and desperately need normalizing.
Get them help. Teens who are cutting need professional counseling to address the route of their emotional distress and to help them build new coping and self soothing skills.
Overall, when teens feel seen and loved it builds their self-esteem and ability to handle stress. Do your best to provide them with an environment that has minimal conflict, and lots of praise and unconditional love. Teens are strong and resilient and with your love and support can make it through and develop healthy ways to manage and regulate their emotions.
Tara Murphy is a counselor with Bainbridge Youth Services, a 50-year-old organization that provides community youth (ages 12-19) with no-cost, confidential and high quality professional counseling. Bainbridge Youth Services can be reached at 206-842-9675.