Understanding Self-Harm
Helping Your Child Deal with Emotions

Intentional self-injury is one of the leading reasons American teens and young adults end up in the emergency room.

A national study of Medicaid data revealed that 80-90% of youth self-harmers meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder. Research also reported that one in twelve teens, mostly girls, engage in this behavior, and 10% of this population continues self-harming into young adulthood. Self-harming behaviors often appear in conjunction with an eating disorder, and are a strong indication of future suicidal tendency.

Self-harm can be done in a number of ways, the most common being cutting, burning, hitting, picking at the skin, pulling out hair, biting, and carving. The following list can help you identify self-harming behaviors in your child:

  • Cuts and burns on the wrists, arms, legs, hips, or stomach
  • Wearing baggy and loose clothing
  • Wearing long sleeves to conceal wounds
  • Hiding razors, scissors, lighters, or knives in strange places like under the bed, in the nightstand, etc.
  • Spending abnormal amounts of time locked in bedroom or bathroom
  • Avoiding social situations

Why does a child self-harm? Many youth see it as a means to escape their feelings and help cope with life stressors; others use it as punishment, and some self-harm to feel the natural high that comes from endorphins after the injury. This natural high is what makes self-harm addictive and habit-forming. Self-harming can provide teens with control over their body when they feel they can't control anything else in their life.

You may be angry or want to tell your child to stop self-harming behavior, but your rules may only make your child feel a greater lack of control. Yes, you want your child to stop the harmful behavior, but remember that self-harm is addictive; it's difficult to stop.

One of the best things you can do is offer your child an alternative intervention technique like holding an ice cube, taking a cold shower, squeezing a ball, or drawing and writing about their feelings. Transferring their energy to a new activity can create a healthier coping method that may eventually help your child overcome the need to self-harm. Some formal treatment methods for self-harming behaviors include outpatient therapy, and depending on severity, inpatient and specialized self-injury hospital programs. Many treatment methods combine medication, therapy, and services for accompanying problems like eating disorders or substance abuse. The most successful programs actively engage the patient, offer an aftercare plan and support, and collaborate with referring and other involved professionals.

Many professionals call self-harm a silent cry for help. Even though the individual may know that they need help, they are afraid of the stigma associated with self-harming behaviors and mental health. By reaching out first, you can let your child know that you are there for them and will help them get the help they need.

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(Q&A with Dr. Michelle Murray, Ph.D.)