Why Teen Girls Resort to Self-Harming as a Coping Mechanism to Dating Abuse

For some girls experiencing dating abuse, self-harm can become a coping mechanism. Whether they’re experiencing physical, psychological, or verbal abuse, a young girl can become mentally broken down to the point where self-harming can be an outlook to relieve themselves from the emotional and or physical pain in the abusive relationship.

Self-harm is the physical act of one hurting themselves as a way to cope with their emotional problems, and it can be done by cutting, burning, or bruising oneself’s skin. The chance of it happening is higher in women than in men, especially for young women, ages 15 to 24 years olds.

In a study conducted by the DoSomething organization, approximately 1.5 million high school students in the United States have been victims to dating violence. Although males and females both experience teen dating violence, females are victims to more physical and psychological abuse.

A contributing factor of self-harm behavior was explained by the University of Rochester Medical center that teens who experience abusive relationships of any type have a higher risk of negative effects on their mental health than older adults because their brains have not fully developed yet. Therefore, a teen in an abusive relationship can be more likely to develop depression and resort to behaviors of self-harm because they haven’t learned how to cope with relationship issues.

In an intimate-partner violence relationship, the offender can threaten, intimidate, and control the victim as a way to demonstrate their power over them. Offenders can also isolate the victim from their friends and family to establish even greater control, with the offender being the only person they have in their life.

Victoria, a 14-year-old girl, shares she was driven to self-harm behavior while in an abusive teenage relationship. “It felt like the only thing that was stable in my life,” said Victoria. “I would use it to help me keep my mind off of things.”

There’s a sense of control with self-harming whereas girls do not feel they have control in an abusive relationship. Being able to have a “stable” part in their life that’s otherwise not in their relationship can lead to self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Due to the anxiety and fear that come from abusive relationships, self-harming can produce a state of calmness and be an escape from reality. However, it can also be a way to punish oneself for the guilt and shame that come from staying in an abusive relationship, and the treatment one is experiencing which can cause more of an extreme approach of self-hate and insecurity.

Self-harm is also used in the form of an expression because someone who self-harms cannot verbally communicate what they are feeling to others, so they communicate their pain on their body. Similarly, when someone is experiencing abuse in a relationship, they may have extreme feelings of fear to let others aware of the situation because of the potential consequences that come from the abuser knowing they told someone. Thus, the abuse is kept to themselves just like with self-harm, causing a decline in mental health.

Although self-harming can be done with no suicide intentions at all, it doesn’t mean that thoughts of suicide aren’t a risk for people who self-harm. Females who have mental illnesses and are in dating violence relationships have increased risk for thoughts of suicide, especially if the female is experiencing sexual abuse.

Girls who self-harm and experience abuse are often trapped in a web of secrecy. Telling someone is the first step to removing themselves from the abusive and self-inflicted environment in which they live. Verbally expressing the pain is a bigger sigh of relief than any feeling of hurting oneself from the problems occuring.

March is Self-Injury Awareness Month

Self-harming to cope with dating abuse is not the way to escape one’s problems and abuse. The way to escape the problems is by confiding in a trusted friend or family member who can help and provide resources. If this is not an option, seek help from emergency medical services, crisis lifelines, and or counseling services. There are always people who want to help. Whether it’s someone you know or a professional, communicate your pain and know you are not alone.

LiveYourDream.org provides the following Teen Dating Violence Toolkit to help raise awareness about the signs of dating abuse for teens and talk about healthy love. 

It’s important to educate ourselves on the issue so we can recognize the signs of teen dating violence and be able to have a conversation before things escalate. It’s equally important to support programs, like Dream It, Be It, that empower vulnerable teens to pursue their dreams of success no matter what gender-based obstacles they face.

Download the Toolkit

Join us in raising awareness! Download our toolkit with resources for teens, resources for parents of teens, and resources for schools.

Carlie Olenick is a college student studying English at Howard Community College in Maryland. Carlie hopes to transfer to a four-year university in the fall of 2023 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English language, literature and general.