Is self-injury typical?
There is no kind of typical self-injury behavior. However, in order to prevent it or deal with it when it happens, it is important to understand some things about it.
Some children and adolescents say they hurt themselves because it distracts them and alleviates the intense emotional pain that they are feeling. Others say they do it because they feel numb. For these children and adolescents, injuring themselves helps them feel something.
Self-injury is usually kept secret but for some children and adolescents it can be a way to ask for help, since it can become a way of communicating their distress when they have difficulties doing it any other way. For those who are secretive about injuring themselves, this habit is focused on ameliorating their own emotional pain, while for those who share it, it can be a way to communicate their feelings. When a young person is found cutting, it's likely to elicit empathy and concern from caregivers and other adults.
Self-injury is what clinicians call a maladaptive coping tool: even though it is not the best way to manage a problem, it may bring temporary relief. Unfortunately, that relief makes self-injurious behavior very reinforcing, meaning that children may come to rely upon it as a way to deal or communicate their painful feelings.
The longer a child and adolescent practices self-injury, the more difficult to interrupt it becomes. It is also common that many children who self-injury feel ashamed about doing it and say they don't want to do it anymore. Even in those cases, without proper and specialized help, interrupting this behavior may be very difficult.
When should I be concerned?
If caregivers know their child is self-injuring, they should ask for help sooner than later. But, it is not always easy to be certain. So, caregivers should be concerned about the possibility of a child’s or teen to be injuring themselves when they see the following signs:
- Talking about self-injury.
- Suspicious-looking scars (specially in the arms, legs, or belly areas).
- Wounds that do not heal or get worse.
- Cuts on the same place.
- Collecting sharp tools, such as shards of glass, safety pins, razors, etc.
- Wearing long-sleeved clothing in warm weather.
- Avoiding social activities.
- Wearing a lot of bandages.
- Refusing to change clothes in school or in front of others.
- Avoiding wearing swimwear.
- Visiting websites, communities in the web and social media related to self-injury.
- Having friends who self-injure.
The impulse adolescents feel to injure themselves is almost always triggered by a specific event in their lives. The most common “trigger” for cutting is feeling rejected: by a boyfriend/girlfriend, close friends, or by a general feeling of being left out or criticized.
Cutting can also be copy-cat behavior inspired by videos and images that show other adolescents injuring themselves.
What can I do to help a child engaging in self-injury?
Even though caregivers know their children best, when it comes to self-injurious behaviors, there is not much that caregivers can do. However, a few orientations could be useful.
- If your child or adolescent talks about self-injury, be empathetic and give them a safe space to speak about their emotions. Avoid judging, punishing, or embarrassing your child. Those behaviors can worsen the problem.
- If you suspect that these behaviors are happening and may be hidden, avoid being angry or confrontational. Try approaching your child letting them know that you have noticed something is going on.
- Be supportive. Let your child know that you are there to help in any way you can.
Avoid attempting to "fix" your child or adolescent's self-injury on your own. It is best to solicit the help of a mental health professional who can assess why your child is self-injuring and what emotional difficulty they are experiencing. It is important that caregivers work closely with the mental health professional who will provide guidance to them about how to talk with their child, how to make their home a safe place, and what to do if the behavior returns.
What kind of professional support can I seek out for help?
It is not unusual that some caregivers feel embarrassed, inadequate, or guilty if their child is struggling with self-injury. But, if you are concerned about your child, support and guidance are available now. Communicate concerns during and between visits with your child's doctor.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, a consultation with a mental health professional may be necessary. These professionals also work with caregivers so that they know how to support their children outside of therapy sessions.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on self-injuring behaviors can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.