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Why Are Our Tweens Hurting Themselves?

As a psychologist who has been working with tweens and teens for 20-plus years, I continue to be surprised by new tween trends. Sadly, I have become aware of one in particular—that tweens, like the older set of teens, are engaging in self-harm. This includes cutting, burning and hitting yourself. Estimates of incidence among high schoolers are up. I have read various studies and figures, but it is generally accepted that up to 14 percent of high schoolers have engaged in self-harm on at least one occasion.

In a study published in the June 2012 issue of Pediatrics, researchers reported alarming figures, which show that kids are starting even earlier. Specifically, they found that 4 percent of 6th graders and 13 percent of 9th graders had hit, cut, burned or hurt themselves intentionally. The tweens were more likely than the teens to hit themselves, while the teens were more likely to cut or carve their skin.

The question is why tweens are engaging in intentional self-harm. Let me tell you why. Like the teens, they report hurting themselves when they don't know how to deal with overwhelming feelings. They also report that just like the teens, they hurt themselves when they want to stop negative emotions and that they would sometimes prefer physical to emotional pain. These particular tweens have a difficult time expressing their feelings, so they hurt themselves as a way to distract themselves and cope. The feelings that they are most likely to report having difficulty with are anger, sadness and anxiety.

These tweens find ways to bang their heads against the wall, hit themselves or even cut themselves privately. They may engage in this behavior for some time before parents become aware.

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What to Do if Your Tween Is Engaging in Self-Harm

If you notice changes in your tween's behavior such as increased isolation, sadness, irritability and/or unexplained injuries, then sit down and talk to your tween in a gentle, calm and nonjudgmental manner. The way that you ask questions will determine whether your tween will open up to you. And, if your tween admits to self-harm, then stay calm so that the child continues to talk. If you want your tween to shut down, then you should start to panic and react emotionally.

Find out what is stressing your tween and what some areas of frustration are. I also suggest that you get your tween to a mental health professional as soon as possible. A therapist who is experienced in working with tweens who engage in self-harm will help to further identify areas of stress and will teach your child how to cope more effectively with stressors. Your tween should come away from therapy sessions with a toolbox of skills to use throughout life. You will know that therapy has been beneficial when effective coping strategies replace self-harm.

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How Can Parents Prevent Their Tweens From Engaging in Self-Harm?

1. Make sure that you model coping with stress in appropriate ways, including relaxing, talking to friends, listening to music, etc. Remember that you are your tween's most important role model.

2. Take a look at your tween's schedule to make sure that your child is leading a balanced life and has time for recreation as well as schoolwork. A tween who has balance in his/her life is less likely to engage in self-harm.

3. Teach your tween that not every feeling needs an accompanying action. Sometimes it is necessary to sit with uncomfortable feelings and not act on them.

4. Ensure that your tween has a menu of self-soothing behaviors, such as good books, movies, hobbies, etc.

5. Be the most calm and reassuring parent that you can be. This goes a long way in creating a healthy tween.

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