What is self-harm?
What causes children to hurt themselves and ways to help them overcome the impulse.
Self-harm usually starts as a way to relieve the build-up of pressure from distressing thoughts and feelings. Although this might give a child or young person temporary relief from the emotional pain they are feeling, the underlying reasons still remain. Soon after, feelings of guilt and shame might follow, which can continue the cycle.
Because of the feeling of temporary relief, self-harm can become someone’s typical way of dealing with life’s difficulties. It is important that children who self-harm get the right support and help as early as possible. Learning new coping strategies to deal with these difficulties can make it easier to break the cycle of self-harm in the long term.
The topic of experiencing mental health challenges may be difficult for some readers. If you or a loved one is struggling with their mental health, please seek support by accessing the following resources: United for Global Mental Health and Open Counseling Suicide Hotline Database. If your country does not have a national helpline please seek professional support from a trained carer, especially before making any decisions on treatment.
What is self-harm?
Any behaviour that causes harm to oneself as a way to deal with difficult emotions can be seen as self-harm. It most frequently takes the form of cutting, burning, non-suicidal self-injury or other high-risk behaviours.
It’s important to know that most people who self-harm don’t want to end their lives.
Talking to a healthcare professional can help people who self-harm find other options for coping with the emotional pain.
Why do people self-harm?
Everyone has concerns that cause stress and worry them. Many people manage these worries by talking to friends and family, but some find these difficulties overwhelming. When we don’t express our emotions and talk about the things that make us distressed, angry or upset, the pressure can build up and become unbearable. Some people turn this in on themselves and use their bodies to express the thoughts and feelings they can’t say aloud and end up harming themselves.
Self-harm in children and adolescents
Self-harming is most common among adolescents and young adults although people of any age may do it.
What causes people to self-harm varies. Some of the reasons that children or young people report as triggers or reasons that lead them to self-harm include:
- A sudden life change like a death, divorce or moving school
- Exam stress, feelings of extreme pressure or fear of failure
- Witnessing or experiencing abuse at school, home, or in a relationship
- Witnessing or experiencing a severely distressing or traumatic incident
- Loneliness, feelings of guilt or being unloved
- Low self-esteem or issues with body image
- Criticism from family, friends or teachers
- Violence among peers
When a few of these issues come together they can quickly feel overwhelming and become too much for one person to deal with. Instead of finding ways to express those feelings to the world, some children start to take this pain and anger out on themselves.
Young people have described self-harm as a way to ‘get out the hurt, anger and pain’ caused by pressures in their lives. They hurt themselves because they didn’t know what else to do and didn’t feel like they had any other options.
Children who self-harm do so not only as a way to cope, but to release stress, communicate pain or distract themselves from memories of traumatic experiences. In some cases, it is a way to punish themselves due to feelings of guilt.
Signs and symptoms of self-harm in kids
It is important to know that self-harm is not always obvious and children often hide it. Many do things which are harmful, but don’t think of them as ‘self-harm’. This could include:
- Cutting, burning or inflicting physical and bodily harm to themself
- Spending time on addictive behaviours including using drugs or alcohol
- Not eating, over-eating or forcing themself to vomit
- Over-exercising or exercising when injured
- Getting into fights or risky situations on purpose, including risky sexual behaviour
Some signs that a child or adolescent has been self-harming include:
- Cuts, burns, bruises or scars on their bodies, especially on arms, stomach or thighs
- Wearing clothes that hide these physical signs like long sleeve shirts
- Making excuses about injuries
- Carrying sharp objects with them like knives and scissors
- Talking about feelings of pain, discomfort, weakness, sickness or dizziness
- Feeling shame, disgust, confusion or fear
- Feeling a lack of control, isolation or loneliness
- Signs of low self-esteem such as blaming themselves for any problems or saying they are not good enough
Ways to help your child cope
As a parent, it can be a shock to learn that your child is self-harming. If your child is showing these signs, here are some things you can do to help them find more positive ways to cope with strong or overwhelming feelings:
- Encourage them to open up
Letting your child talk about how they are feeling can itself feel like a relief. They could talk to you or a friend, teacher, health professional or whoever they feel most comfortable with, whether it’s face-to-face, over the phone or by text message. The idea is to start the conversation and openly discuss how they’re feeling and why.
- Stay calm and don’t judge
When your child does open up, show that you care and are interested in listening about what they are saying. Do not judge them or make light of their feelings. You could try saying: ‘Telling someone about your self-harm shows strength and courage; it can often be a huge relief to be able to let go of such a secret, or at least share it. And together we can find other ways to help you with any strong or overwhelming feelings.’
- Discover distraction techniques
Your child may want to stop self-harming, but may not be able to stop right away. Don’t expect to find a solution immediately – this might take time and is natural. Meanwhile, focus on helping your child feel as safe as possible and find new ways to cope. Here are some things they can do when they feel the impulse to self-harm:
- Hitting a cushion or pillow or tearing up a magazine or newspaper instead
- Messaging a friend or someone they trust to help them take their mind off things
- Stepping outside for a walk or some gentle exercise, and being in a public place gives time and space to reduce the impulse
- Playing music, singing or dancing
- Writing down their thoughts
- Focusing on their breathing
- Moving an ice cube over their lower arms or placing an icepack on their chest
- Get professional support
Talking to a mental health professional is important to help your child overcome the impulse to harm themself. Psychotherapy can equip your child with tools to learn problem-solving skills and healthy ways of coping with feelings and emotions.
When to seek professional help
If you see signs of self-harm in your child, it’s important you seek professional help immediately.
Your healthcare provider can refer you to a mental health professional so your child can get the right treatment for them. Your child might be offered counselling or talk therapy, where they can talk with a trained mental health professional about what they are feeling and ways to cope.
Remember, if your child is self-harming they are not doing it for attention, but as a means to cope with problems. They need your support and guidance to feel safe and reassured that they can practice positive ways of coping.
Self-harm is different for different people and has many causes. But whatever the reason, talking about it with your child and finding the right support and help will mean that things will become more manageable over time for your child. Things can and do get better.