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 injure 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 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 or adolescent practices self-injury, the more difficult to interrupt it becomes. It is also common that many children who self-injure 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 teachers know a student is self-injuring, they should sooner than later ask for help. But, it is not always easy to be certain. So, teachers should be concerned about the possibility of a student’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 go into a locker room or change clothes in school.
- 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, 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 student engaging in self-injury?
When it comes to self-injury behaviors, there is not much that teachers can do to help. But a few tips can help.
- If the student talks about self-injury, teachers may be empathetic and give them a safe space to speak about their emotions. Avoid judging, punishing, or embarrassing the student. 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 the student letting them know what has been.
- Be supportive. Teachers may let the students know that they are there to help in any way they can.
- Bring the concerns to a caregiver’s attention. Teachers should not attempt to address a student’s self harm on their own. A student’s caregivers need to know of anything concerning occurring in school. Caregivers may also be able to identify if concerns are present outside of school.
- Seek help from a school mental health professional. In general, self-injury behaviors are difficult to extinguish, particularly if they are occurring regularly. Support from a school mental health professional is warranted in most of these situations.
- Seek support. With a caregiver’s permission, teachers may consult other professionals who specialize in helping children with behavioral difficulties.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Teachers should not attempt to “fix” a student’s self-injurious behavior on their own, and they should reach out for help if there is any imminent danger.
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.