Ep 49: Risky Behaviors and Self Harm
Michelle Mitchell, author of 5 parenting books, shares some surprising facts from her newest book, Self Harm. She says teens act reckless and harm themselves when they can’t find a better way to deal with strong negative emotions. Thankfully, there’s a lot parents can do to help.
Full Show Notes
Self harm is not just about cutting yourself. And it isn’t something that’s only an issue with girls. A teenage boy who punches the wall in anger so hard that his hand starts to bleed is also taking part in self harm. So is the college student who drinks enough alcohol to make herself sick, or the kid who purposely picks a fight with someone twice his size.
As odd as behaviors like this might appear, they actually make perfect sense from a teenager’s perspective. This week on the podcast I spoke with Michelle Mitchell, the author of the new book, Self Harm: Why Teens Do It And What Parents can do to Help.
Michelle told me self harm happens when teenagers have strong negative emotions they don’t know how to deal with. By making themselves sick or hurting themselves teenagers can find a sense of escape. The physical pain has a numbing effect and that temporary release can be highly addicting.
And the numbers are pretty scary. By some estimates, over 20% of teenagers experiment with self harm at some point and another 14% consider it but ultimately decide not to try it. It’s hard to pin down exact statistics because many teens and their families never report the behavior to their doctor.
What Can Parents Do?
The first thing to think about is how you can equip your teenager to cope with very strong negative emotions in ways that are healthy and productive. Michelle told me what you can say to your teen to get them to reflect on their emotions and try out different strategies for dealing with them.
Of course, the best scenario is if you can have this talk before your teenager even thinks about self harm. However, this obviously isn’t always an option. What should you do if you think your teen might already be self harming?
Your first reaction is VERY important. Many parents react with worry and fear and rush into “fix-it” mode. But this just piles more negative emotions on your teen and often makes a tough situation even worse.
On this episode, Michelle breaks down exactly what parents can say in the initial conversation, as well as the follow-ups. The key is to reduce your teenager’s feelings of vulnerability so they feel comfortable talking about it. Then, you want to help them discover a replacement behavior they can use instead of harming themselves next time they experience negative emotions. Finally, you can talk about more long-term coping mechanisms and encourage your teen to work on it further with a therapist.
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Word-for-word examples of WHAT to say to your teen
1. Convince your teen to try something new by using a “trial period”:
“All I want you to do is to try this three times. And if you really aren’t comfortable with it or you don’t like it after that, we can talk. I’ll be listening to what’s effective for you and what isn’t but I just want to try it for three times.”
2. When your teen messes up, show them you’re not mad:
3. Don’t let your teen get hopeless:
4. Convince your teen to try something new by making it about yourself:
5. Convince your teen to try something new by being honest about it:
6. When you aren’t sure how to help your teen:
7. Compliment your teenager 5-10 times a day:
8. Compliment your teenager 5-10 times a day:
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Use “Hit-and-Run Praise” To Build Your Teen’s Self-Esteem:
Most parents intuitively know that it’s important to give kids lots of honest praise and recognition. But with teenagers the problem is that they usually roll their eyes or say something sarcastic when their parents try to say something nice. The solution, Michelle told me, is to use “hit-and-run” praise. To do it, throw your teen a compliment while your walking by and be sure not to pause or stick around for the eye roll. Just keep in walking and don’t give them a chance to respond sarcastically. If you need to, Michelle says, you can roll your eyes for them as you walk away. She recommends doing this 5-10 times per day. Take 10 minutes to write down 50 compliments, enough to get you through about one week. Make a list and then cross off each compliment as you use it on your teenager. Can you get through all 50 during the next 7 days?
2. Does Your Teen Experience Intense Emotions?
3. Reduce Your Teen’s Feelings of Vulnerability Before A Big Talk:
4. A Simple Technique to Get Your Teen Doing Something New:
About Michelle Mitchell
An award-winning speaker, author and educator, Michelle started her career as a primary school teacher before leaving that position to found a harm prevention charity called Youth Excel. For the next 20 years Youth Excel continued to grow and work with schools, alternative education, and child safety. One of Michelle’s most successful projects was opening a private practice which offered psychology, counseling, and mentoring services to young people aged 6 – 18. Her team of 12 staff serviced 120 families and 50 local schools with tailor made care.
Michelle’ work has been featured on The Today Show, Today Tonight, and Channel 10 Morning News, as well as countless print media including The Age, The Courier Mail, and Daily Telegraph. She is a regular contributor to radio. Michelle speaks to groups of parents, students, and professionals in schools and conferences. Her down-to-earth, energetic, and passionate style resonates with a broad range of people and enables her to transfer years of hands-on experience to others in a practical and honest way.
She is a registered teacher and lives with her husband and two teenagers in Brisbane, Australia.