Cutting, burning, carving—self-injury is big health concern in the US, with an estimated 15 to 20 percent of kids and teens intentionally inflicting pain on themselves.
It’s scary for any parent who suspects their kid might be self-harming, but the reasons behind it might surprise you.
Here, find out why kids self-harm, the signs you should look for, and what you can do to help your child.
Why kids self-harm.
The most common reason kids self-harm is to cope with their emotions, according to Janis Whitlock, a research scientist and the director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery in New York City.
Cutting and other self-harm behaviors can make a kid who is really upset feel calm quickly or restore a sense of equilibrium for a kid who feels disassociated or numb.
Behaviors vary but kids usually cut, burn, carve their skin or scratch themselves until they leave marks or bleed. Some kids may even embed objects underneath their skin. In boys, punching themselves or something else, with the intent to harm, is common.
“In the brain, it releases opioids, serotonin, and the endorphins that give a temporary feel good for that moment,” according to Ana Moreno, a psychotherapist and addiction specialist at Lucida Treatment Center in Miami, Fla.
Kids who self-harm experience emotions in an intense way, and may also have a lot of negative thoughts and self-criticism, emotions about a past trauma or hardship or be dealing with perceived rejection from their peers.
A way to self-medicate, self-harm becomes a metaphor for dealing with their emotions, according to Moreno.
“It’s easier for me to show you I have pain if I can show you I have a cut or a burn than to talk about my emotional pain,” she said.
However, most kids don’t want anyone to find out what they’re doing.
Who is at risk?
Self-injury is common in kids ages 12 to 17, but it can occur as young as age 7.
Kids who self-harm may also have depression, an anxiety or eating disorder, or a history of trauma. About 50 to 90 percent of girls who practice self-injury were also sexually abused, estimated Moreno.
It may not be a suicide attempt.
It might look like a suicide attempt, but kids who self-harm are looking for help, not a way out.
“If somebody’s actively injuring to cope with feelings, they want to feel better and that want is a good thing,” Whitlock said.
Yet since kids who self-harm are struggling to cope with their overwhelming emotions, they may be more likely to commit suicide later in life. Their feelings become so unmanageable that they feel that suicide becomes their only option.
In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health that Whitlock and her colleagues conducted, 20 percent of kids who had suicidal thoughts or behaviors had self-injured in the past.
“Having practiced self-injury can lower inhibition to the actual act of a suicide attempt,” Whitlock said.
Signs to look for.
Kids who self-harm are typically withdrawn, sad, depressed or become isolated.
“The cutting usually brings a lot of shame and guilt,” Moreno said.
They may spend long periods of time in their rooms or in the bathroom; they’ll likely have unexplained marks on their body, or wear clothing, jewelry or wristbands to conceal them.
Parents may find razor blades, knives or unexplained blood in the bathroom.
If you suspect your child has self-harm behavior, here’s what you can do.
Talk about it.
Approach any conversation with compassion. Although your first instinct may be to react with fear, shock, or anger, it can make the problem worse, Moreno said.
See a therapist.
It’s important to have your child evaluated by a mental health professional to make sure he’s not suicidal. Dialectical behavior therapy—which teaches kids how to be with their emotions without fighting against them and utilize coping skills—is one of the most effective forms of therapy.
Model healthy coping.
Your child might stop self-harm behaviors, but if he doesn’t know how to cope with his emotions, he’ll be worse off later on in life. So it’s important for you to teach and model healthy coping mechanisms now like talking about feelings, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, listening to music or exercise.
As your child gets help, you’ll need support too from a counselor, a support group or friends.
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.