On Lockdowns and Self-harming behavior
I have been practising as an Art Therapist in South east Asia for the past 7 years and I have never seen so many teenage clients engaging in self harming behavior, as I have this year.
Although the pandemic and long quarantines have been tough for everyone,the teenagers have probably suffered the most.
Being an adolescent is complicated per-se. Kids this age are in a difficult “in between” stage where they experience a lot of hormonal changes that cause them to feel insecure.They are also in a constant in-between kind of struggle: they are expected to start behaving like adults, but when they want to engage in adult activities they are not allowed to. So it's a confusing time when they start to define or search for their identity and what they identify with is not always aligned to what their parents want for them. Therefore adolescence, as exciting as it may seem can also be a painful time, for both parents and children.
During adolescence, teenagers resolve many of their issues or conflicts through socializing and interacting with peers. Talking with others in different environments provides teens with tools that help in normalizing new experiences and developing safe coping mechanisms to deal with situations or emotions that they may be experiencing for the first time. However, when the lock down restricted socializing, they tried to engage with others the only other way we all did during the pandemic: via social media, which turned out to be a double bladed knife.
The lack of real life interactions during the pandemic was detrimental to teens mental health. There are kids who graduated without the recognition of a ceremony, kids that had just started dating when lockdown was imposed. There were children that were cooped up with abusive parents, and others who saw their mothers and fathers lose jobs and wonder how food was going to find its way to the table the next day…
Whatever the situation was, many of these teens experienced an overwhelming amount of stress and difficult emotions that they didn't know how to deal with, and unfortunately they weren't able to bring this experience to school and share it with friends or a counselor. They weren't able to have that important face to face conversation with a trusting loving peer, and so, they seeked to connect via social media, where they discovered that they were not alone.
They found out, that in fact, there were thousands like them, that felt desperate and were also seeking to feel understood and have someone to listen and normalize their experience. But there is a danger in seeking help on social media and sharing intimate dilemmas with absolute strangers who don´t always offer the best advice.
Unfortunately, many teens turned to platforms like Tik tok, Snap chat or Instagram to share posts about difficult experiences and ways to cope with them. And whether they were seeking to connect or feel understood, they also discovered that others were seeking help by posting images or videos of their self harming behavior. According to Alan Mozes, Health Day Reporter on webmed.com his research indicates the possibility that posting about self harming online
“...could also reflect a risky copy-cat phenomenon. The more teens see others sharing posts about self-harm, the more curious they become and the more inclined they may be to imitate what they see and then share that experience online, Giordano said...”
The question for parents of primary care takers is: how can I help my teen cope with this situation?
When parents discover their teens engaging in self harming behaviors they panic, alarm bells go off inside their heads and many times, with the intention of protecting their children, they ask them not to talk about these things with anyone. They don't want anyone to think that their child is crazy and by wanting to help, they provoke in their children a feeling of guilt, despair and of not being understood, therefore intense solitude and fear take over, which makes the situation worse.
Teens are engaging in self harming behaviors because they feel overwhelmed with emotions and they don't know how to cope with them. They want to stop feeling them, they wish to disconnect and in severe cases where they feel completely dissociated or numb, self harming helps them to momentarily reconnect and feel alive.
If you find your child engaging in self harming behaviors, my sincere advice is to seek professional help. However, as a parent you also have to provide support in the household, and to do this, the best way is to model. You want your child to connect with you! Not with a stranger on the other side of the planet. So it is definitely important to monitor your kids' activities on social media platforms, but more than this, the most important part is how you approach the difficult feelings you experience in front of your teen.
Be vulnerable in front of your child and embody healthy coping mechanisms in front of them. Show your teens and children that overwhelming emotions happen to all of us, and that crying is actually a healthy coping behavior. Explain to them that anxiety can be released by talking about fears and through addressing preoccupations openly with others. Model how to sit with an emotion and be present when they talk to you. A good way to empower them and invite them to share is to remind them that they have the emotion, the emotion doesn´t have them. Listen to them, don't judge them for their actions and remind them how much you love them.
Keep in mind that your child is not seeking to punish you, they are just asking for help and don't know how.
If you wish to understand more about this self harming phenomena that increased during the pandemic, please take a look at these articles. There is plenty of information on the web, but I found these particularly helpful.