Finding out that a loved one is self-harming can be frightening, confusing, and devastating. As a friend, you may wrack your brain trying to figure out how you did not see the warning signs. As a parent, you may ruminate over what you did wrong, where you failed your child. In fact, despite the showers of love and protection you provide for your child, it may not be enough to prevent them from hurting themselves.
Approximately 15% of all children and teens self-harm. Self-harm is defined as the compulsion to deliberately inflict physical pain on one’s self. You may also hear it called self-mutilation, cutting, and non-suicidal self-injury. The more common methods of self-harm are excessive scratching, scab picking, burning, and cutting. This behavior is rarely indicative of suicidal intentions. Most children who self-harm do not want to die. So why do they do it?
Self-harm is an indicator that something else is wrong. Many individuals who self-harm also experience depression, anxiety, eating disorders, physical abuse or other serious concerns. Most often, a child who is engaging in this behavior is aiming to get rid of the emotional distress they are feeling. Studies show that the pain inflicted by self-harm releases endorphins in the brain that reduce tension and result in a feeling of calm. This feeling is so pleasing that the individual starts to associate self-harm as soothing and not destructive. Essentially, self-harm affects the brain very similarly to opiates and can be just as addictive as those drugs.
A child who self-harms is one that experiences overwhelming emotions, shame, self-loathing, helplessness, and other negative thoughts. They feel that they cannot otherwise express how they are feeling and do not know how else to ebb the emotional pain. As a parent or friend, you may see changes in this person. Warning signs include:
- Increased sad mood
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Spending long periods of time alone
- Wearing long sleeves or jackets in warm weather
- Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks, or other wounds
- Keeping sharp objects readily available
- Statements of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- Impulsivity, unpredictability, or other emotional instability
- Frequent reports of accidental injury
If you find out that your child is self-harming it is normal to feel sad, worried, shocked, and even angry. First of all, avoid asking a million questions that will further overwhelm your child. Reassure your child that you are there to help and will be there at every step forward and step back. There are many actions you can take to help your child become healthier emotionally and physically.
- Create a coping kit: Grab a shoebox or other container and help your child fill it with positive and uplifting items. These can be pictures, upbeat music, journaling or art supplies, inspirational quotes, and anything else your child finds calming and inspiring.
- Talk about triggers: Children do not always stop to identify the stressors that contribute to their emotions. Help your child identify the types of situations and stressors that tend to trigger their negative feelings. This can help your child be better prepared with coping skills to better react to those situations.
- Harm reduction: Suggest less harmful behaviors in place of the self-harm. Examples are holding an ice cube, snapping a rubber band on the wrist, sucking a lemon peel, pounding a pillow. These actions can still release the emotional tension without the result of leaving harmful marks on the body.
- Suggest engaging in physical activity: Interestingly, the rush of adrenaline release in physical activities such as running, dancing, and swimming creates the same chemical response in the brain that self-harm creates. By engaging in physical activity, children can learn to replace the high of self-harm with the high of exercise.
- Be compassionate about setbacks: Contrary to popular belief, ceasing to self-harm is not easy. Remember, it can be an addictive behavior and as we know, addictions are difficult to overcome. If your child does experience a setback, respond by showing nonjudgmental and unconditional support and love. Do not shame, criticize, or overreact because these responses can cause your child to retreat back to the self-harming behaviors.
Finally, seek professional support for your child. A therapist will initially complete a risk assessment to determine if your child’s self-harm is suicidal or non-suicidal. Therapy can be targeted at helping your child understand the root causes of self-harm, focus on behavioral change, or help your child understand their reactions to triggering events and develop healthier coping skills. If your child is self-harming, please understand that you alone cannot change it. The best action you can take is to seek a professional care. The process may take several months, but stay encouraged and hopeful. Overcoming self-harm is not simple and quick, but with proper interventions and support your child can heal.