Why Children Harm Themselves
July 2nd, 2019
Childhood comes with a lot of uncertainty, and as kids grow more aware of the world around them, societal pressures and hormonal changes set in. Children may begin to feel like they have less control over their lives and surroundings, causing confusion and adversity that may be hard to see on the surface.
While some kids reach out to their parents or a counselor when they’re feeling dragged down, others turn to self-harm as a way of coping. This dangerous behavior is a startling reality for millions—leaving families with more questions than answers.
What Is Self-Harm?
About one in one hundred people engage in self-harm. This is most prevalent in teen girls, although people of all ages and genders are susceptible. Self-harm, or self-injury, is the act of deliberately hurting oneself to release negative feelings. Injuries can range from small pinpricks to severe cuts that may leave permanent scarring or cause infection.
Some examples of self-harm in children include:
- Cutting, or carving – Using a razor blade, knife, or other sharp items to cut one’s own skin. Roughly 35 percent of self-harm cases involve cutting.
- Punching, ramming, or headbanging – Physical force is used to cause injury by punching oneself or ramming into an object to cause pain.
- Burning or branding – Using cigarettes, matches, lighters, or candles to burn skin
- Trichotillomania – Compulsively pulling hairs from the head, eyebrows, arms, or legs
- Skin insertion – Pins and needles are used to poke holes in the body.
- Scratching skin
- Interfering with the healing of wounds
- Choking or suffocating
- Tattooing or excessive piercings
Self-harm alone is not considered a mental health disorder but is regarded as a symptom of a larger issue—or an unhealthy way of coping with adverse feelings. While children who self-harm are not necessarily trying to kill themselves, the likelihood of attempting suicide is higher in children who self-harm.
Cutting and Self-Harm Behaviors in Teens
People of all ages engage in self-harm behaviors, although most begin in their teens. Mental health disorders such as depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some personality disorders may trigger self-harm in young people as a means of coping. Children who experience trauma and abuse, early drug or alcohol use, and associate with others who self-harm are more likely to develop self-harm tendencies. It’s important to know the signs in order to help your child before the behavior becomes a habit.
Signs of self-harm in children include:
- Recurrent cuts, scars, or bruising
- Long sleeves, concealer on scars, and long pants in hot weather
- Dismissing injuries as accidents
- Possession of sharp devices such as knives, needles, or razors for no discernible reason
Cutting and self-harm behaviors in adolescence is more common than might be expected. Because children have a difficult time expressing difficult emotions, a physical reaction to becoming overwhelmed is often a cry for help. To find out if your child is engaging in self-harm, it’s important to keep an eye on noticeable changes in their behavior. Secrecy, appetite changes, and seeming “down” or “not themselves” can be a sign that something is wrong.
Why Do Children Self-Harm?
Self-harm in children can surface for any number of reasons. The act itself and the pain felt is perceived as therapeutic in some way and over time can become a compulsive behavior.
Common reasons for self-harm in children include:
- Distraction from trauma or bad memories
- To “feel something” when they feel detached
- A cry for help—not to be confused with “seeking attention,” which has been stigmatized as manipulative behavior
- A release when they are feeling angry, lonely, or helpless
- To punish themselves; low self-esteem
- To feel “in control”
- Poverty; neglect
Some of the dangers related to self-harm include:
- Infection and scarring
- Isolation from family and friends
- Secretive behavior
- Susceptibility to HIV, hepatitis, and tetanus
- Accidental death
If your child looks to pain as a release, it’s time to consider options for treatment. This behavior can be incredibly dangerous and develop into a bigger problem as your child gets older. Self-harm is a teachable event—not one to be punished. If you believe your child is engaging in self-harm, it’s imperative that the focus shifts to rehabilitation rather than guilt.
Teen Self-harm in the Digital Age – Cyberbullying Impact on Self-Esteem
The advent of the internet and the digital age has had a negative impact on the health and well-being of teens in the US. Cyberbullying has become commonplace, even between two people who have never met one another.
Startling statistics highlight the prevalence of cyberbullying in teen culture, which may contribute to low self-esteem and self-harm:
- The 2015 School Crime Supplement by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that about 21 percent of students between the ages of twelve to eighteen have been bullied.
- The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly 15 percent of high school students were cyberbullied within the twelve months prior to the survey.
Cyberbullying is especially dangerous because it can happen anytime and anywhere. Teens tend to carry a mobile device or have the internet near at hand, so it’s easy enough to see bullying messages.
How to Help a Teen Who Self-Harms
Reaching out to your child and expressing love and support is essential to keeping the lines of communication open, ultimately allowing you to jump in and help. Teachers report cases of self-harm in children as young as three. These behaviors could be a sign of a bigger issue at home.
It’s important to listen to your child, even when he or she isn’t speaking. Be sure to come from a place of love, without judgment or lecturing.
Some ways you can begin to help your child in the right direction include:
- Creating a coping kit – Examples of this could be an art set, a playlist, or a journal. Help your child identify when they want to hurt themselves, and help them to focus their energy on something they enjoy.
- Modeling positive energy – Keep adult problems away from your child and show compassion with setbacks. Speak with teachers or school administration to give them a heads-up that your child is going through “some stuff.” You don’t necessarily need to disclose all information; however, a school counselor on standby would benefit your child.
- Openly discussing triggers – Help your child to avoid these triggers.
- Suggesting and participating in exercise, eating right, and staying hydrated
- Being compassionate about setbacks – Offer a shoulder to cry on.
Your child may not want to discuss self-harm with you for fear of embarrassment, guilt, or disappointing a parent. Offer to work together to find a solution to the problem, even if your involvement in the discussion is limited—affording your child some semblance of control over the situation. Medical treatments are available to treat self-harm behaviors as well as the underlying cause.
Treatment for Self-Harm in Children
While there are no medications currently approved to prevent self-harm, underlying mental health disorders may be treated to curb the desire. Mental health therapies and counseling can help change thought processes and dangerous behavior over time. These treatments help children learn:
New methods of coping with hard feelings
Social, life, and relationship skills
Overcoming trauma and other mental health issues
Treatment for self-harm can be administered in a mental health rehabilitation clinic in either an inpatient or outpatient setting. Ongoing care can help kids and teens continue to thrive after treatment. Online therapy and treatments may be available depending on the provider, making treatment more accessible than ever.
Help Is Available.
If you know a child who is engaging in dangerous behaviors, you’re not alone. Our friendly staff is here to answer your questions, find resources, and discuss treatment options for self-harm. Recovery is just around the corner. Don’t wait. We’re here to help.