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Harmful coping methods prevalent among adolescents who self-injure

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   News Release,   Research,   Spotlight,   Students and Faculty

Adolescents who have a hard time regulating their emotions often exhibit disruptive behaviors, but those who self-harm are more likely to engage in these behaviors to deal with their emotional pain.

According to a new study out of the University of Georgia, adolescents with a history of nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) use negative coping methods, like acting out and focusing on their negative emotions, more than those with no history of NSSI.

NSSI is the act of intentionally harming one’s body without intending to end one’s life and can take on many forms beyond skin cutting, including head-banging, burning, preventing wounds from healing, scratching, imbedding objects under the skin and pricking the skin with needles or sharp objects.

“If an adolescent is experiencing extreme psychological distress, they may turn to NSSI as a way of regulating their emotions, to change how they feel by stopping bad feelings or finding relief,” said Amanda Giordano, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Mary Frances Early College of Education. “For youth who engage in NSSI, the act is often their best attempt to cope with overwhelming psychological pain.”

Self-injury behaviors differ between females and males

Giordano conducted a survey of 350 adolescents across the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 and found that 25.7% of adolescents reported lifetime NSSI engagement, while 12% reported NSSI in the previous years.

Additionally, the data showed a gender difference in NSSI behaviors among participants, with females engaging in cutting, scratching, preventing wounds from healing and biting most frequently, and males engaging in scratching, cutting, punching and head banging most frequently.

“We can’t assume NSSI is going to look one way since there are lots of methods, unfortunately, that people can use to injure themselves,” said Giordano. “A lot of times when people hear nonsuicidal self-injury, they think cutting, and while that is the most prevalent form among females, people need to understand that there are gender differences and different types of self-injury.”

Adolescents who do not engage in NSSI rely on adaptive coping methods more than their counterparts and are 31% more likely to use distraction and 27% more likely to use self-care.

In contrast, those who engage in NSSI rely on maladaptive or harmful coping methods more than those who do not engage in NSSI. Specifically, these individuals are 61% more likely to act out and 73% more likely to ruminate or focus on their negative emotions.

While not significant, those who engage in NSSI are 5% more likely to seek social support compared to those who do not engage in NSSI.

“It’s interesting because both groups seem to seek social support at the same rate,” said Giordano. “This may mean that more education is needed to prepare teachers, parents, and caregivers to respond effectively to adolescents seeking support. We can provide more information about the motives behind NSSI, signs that it might be occurring, and how to help foster effective emotion regulation strategies among youth.”

Ultimately, it is an encouraging sign that individuals who engage in NSSI are seeking help from others, according to Giordano.

Diverse coping strategies may help adolescents who self-injure

To help prevent adolescents from using harmful coping strategies—such as NSSI, substance abuse, acting out at school or at home, harming others and more—counselors and parents can educate and encourage their children to engage in adaptive coping strategies at an early age.

These strategies include several forms of distraction, such as self-care, breathing exercises, physical activity, changing their interpretation of events, engaging in spiritual practice, taking a warm bath, walking in nature and more.

Counselors can also examine whether their clients rely more heavily on harmful or positive behaviors when distressed to determine a plan of action, which may include teaching them new coping strategies or helping them modify their beliefs, so they can reevaluate their situation and change their mindset.

“We can’t live in a world that’s free from distress, and that’s why I think equipping children in kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes with the skills to self-soothe and cope on their own is important,” said Giordano. “No one’s going to be able to provide effective social support every time someone’s in distress, so teaching children how to cope with life’s difficulties can set them up for success as they move into adolescence.”

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602