Sometimes children intentionally hurt themselves. Childhood self-injury can present at very young ages. The most common forms of self-injury are scratching, cutting, and hitting (particularly in younger children). Parents often feel frightened, shocked, angry, sad, or guilty when they discover or observe their child to self-injure. Certain acts of self-injury, such as cutting, are particularly upsetting to parents. If your child’s attire changes, particularly toward longer sleeves or more layers, this change may be evidence of cutting.
Unexplained scratches that frequently appear may be suspect. If you observe small, linear cuts, know that this style of injury is the most common presentation of cutting behavior.
In our clinical work, we have seen some adolescents cut words into themselves.
If your child has generally struggled with stress, he or she may be vulnerable to self-injury. If you have not observed your child to self-injure or have not witnessed signs of injury, it is important to verify your concerns.
If your child has recently experienced a new, negative emotional event (e.g., a social rejection, a breakup, teasing/bullying, parental divorce, death/loss, or academic failure) and has become more withdrawn, the risk for self-injury increases.
For children with developmental delays or impairments, self-injury may occur during the toddler years. The most common behaviors observed in this young population are hairpulling, headbanging, eye gouging, and slapping around the head or arms.
These behaviors are outwardly evident and often coincide with a negative emotion aroused by a denial of something desired, change in plans, or anxiety.
What do challenges with Self-Injury look like?
- Scratching, picking, pinching, cutting, hitting, biting, and/or burning himself or herself?
- Head banging when agitated?
- Wearing long-sleeved clothing to cover up injuries?
- Expressing self-loathing or excessive self-criticism?
- Feeling ashamed or embarrassed often?
- Pulling away from you during times of high stress?
- Becoming more withdrawn and less involved with family activities?
- Hiding sharp objects (razors, knives, pins or needles) in bedroom or backpack?
- Spending long periods in the bathroom or bedroom?
Why is Self-Injury happening?
Clinically, self-injury is associated with many psychological conditions. However, self-injury is separate from suicidal behaviors. Self-injury does not mean your child wants to die. Rather, self-injury is tied to a relief of emotional pain, intense feelings, emotional numbness, or anxiety. Sometimes, the behavior is short-lived, but, particularly with cutting and scratching behaviors, the behavior can escalate if left untreated.
The most common reasons for self-injury are as follows:
- Relief from feelings: an expression of feelings like depression, isolation, frustration, and alienation
- Stopping, inducing, or preventing dissociation: a defense mechanism for intense or overwhelming emotions that may stem from feeling separated from oneself
- Physically expressing pain: a physical experience of emotional pain
- Communication: a way to tell loved ones about pain or emotional distress
- Self-nurturing: a method of taking care of oneself; wound care
- Self-punishment: a reaction to shame or self-criticism over past ‘wrongs’
Self-injury is a behavior that can be initiated by any number of factors. Self-injury can arise when your child has not found an adequate means of expressing their emotional pain or when your child experiences low self-esteem or physical discomfort. It may come about as a result of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. However, children from healthy homes may also self-injure. Research shows that cutting behaviors have an element of contagion, so peer pressure may be a factor. Most often, self-injury serves as a vessel for emotional relief.
The act of harming one’s self provides a feeling of control and can release endorphins, much in the same way drugs can. Thus, the cutting behavior creates an experience that releases the pressure of negative emotions and provides the reward of relief. This experience of relief may feel like a warm wave of calm that washes over the individual, and it can become addictive. Because self-injury can be an addiction, some of the treatment strategies are similar to those used for other addictions. For example, psychologists help children identify triggers, understand the emotions related to those triggers, provide distraction during the ‘tension’ phase, and develop positive coping strategies to manage strong emotions. Often, if the child finds a way to distract herself during the ‘tension’ phas, the urge can be averted, and a positive coping strategy can take place instead. Mental health professionals are the most qualified to evaluate your child’s self-injury.
How can I manage Self-Injury at home?
If you have suspicions or have confirmed that your child is self-injuring, it is best to address the behavior immediately. While some children and adolescents self-injure because they want to fit into a peer group, self-injury should not be treated as a ‘phase’ or as something that can be ignored.
A misconception among many adults is that self-injury is a ‘cry for attention,’ which is generally not the case. Most likely, your child is experiencing difficult emotions, and the act of self-injury provides a legitimate relief.
The most effective way for you to help your child is to validate their feelings and understand their self-injury. To achieve both, you will need to be present and available to your child.
Even if you do not feel it, provide a calm and comforting environment. The very fact that your child is intentionally hurting herself is an indication that she is not coping well with stressful situations. Try not to make interactions more stressful. Offer your love and support, and reassure your child that you want to help.
Do not assume you know what your child is feeling; this assumption can create distance and misunderstanding. Ask your child to describe his experience. You have your own emotions in this experience, so it is important to use them productively.
Rather than saying something like, “How can you do something so crazy,” a better way to express the fear and shock you feel would be, “Seeing you hurt yourself is hard for me. I want to get you help, but I also want to understand how self-injury makes you feel better.”
Power struggles, ultimatums and your own emotional outbursts will be unproductive. If your child does not want to engage in a discussion, let him or her know that you will be there when the time is right.
Children who self-injure typically lack coping mechanisms and skills for discussing their inner experiences, so they may need time to figure out how to talk to you about their emotions.
One powerful strategy for self-injuring adolescents is the idea of a Sensory Box or a Comfort Kit . You and your child can seek to discover a set of objects and thoughts that bring a feeling of comfort and relaxation.
In this box, you and your child would collect positive sights (post cards, greeting cards, pictures), sounds (music, ocean sounds, meditation sounds), smells (essential oils, aromatherapy), and tactile objects (blankets, towels, stuffed animals).
The Comfort Kit  might include a set of index cards that lists specific strategies and positive phrases the child will use instead of resorting to self-injury.
Your child’s improvement may take a while. Remember your child is working hard to change a behavior that has been effective in the past. You can help by making time for relaxation. It can be helpful to remove some pressure or responsibilities from your child as he or she works to end self-injurious behaviors.
As your child learns self-care skills and improves self-esteem, self-image, and emotional coping, you can expect the self-injury to diminish. While your child is working to be mentally healthy and stable, it can be helpful to seek your own therapy in an attempt to ensure that your home is a safe haven and a refuge for your child.
How can Clear Child Psychology help with Self-Injury?
We Help You, Immediately
Our Free Discovery Session is a 20-minute consultation where we can talk one-on-one about the concerns and questions you have about your child.
We Help Determine Next Steps
Our Initial Consultation allows us to get a deeper understanding of your child’s needs and determine if an assessment is appropriate.
We Build a Customized Plan
Our Assessments allow us to determine your child’s specific strengths and challenges. We can use this information to develop a customized support plan which includes: referrals
We Connect you with the Right Professionals
Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.
We Provide Ongoing Coaching and Support
Our Coaching Packages allow us to continually support families as they continue their journeys. Parental coaching, life-skills practice, and school advocacy are just a few examples of ways we help.