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Understanding Self-Harming Behaviors

These days, it is not uncommon for pre-teens and teenagers to seek therapy due to cutting or hurting themselves in some way. I have often heard such behaviors described as popular and as “trendy” by many of my clients and other professionals in the field of psychology. Indeed, a simple search in the world of social media will present thousands of pictures, posts, etc. of girls and boys sharing their stories of self-harming with each other. Often times, parents are dumbfounded in the discovery that their son or daughter has been engaging in such behaviors, and I will answer some common questions that come from parents in order to help them gain a better understanding of self-harming behaviors and how to respond to them.

Is my son or daughter doing this because they want to kill themselves?

This is difficult to answer, as everyone’s experience is different. However more often than not, self-injurious behaviors are not carried out with the intent to commit suicide. Rather, the behaviors serve as a means of coping with intensely negative feelings that the person is experiencing (Mayoclinic.org).

Why is my son or daughter doing this to themselves?

As I previously stated, it is likely the individual is hurting themselves in order to cope with something. Cutting and other self-injurious behaviors tend to serve many purposes. Some of these include providing a distraction away from painful emotions, creating a “release” by infliction of pain, reducing emotional tension, communicating feelings, etc.

Why is it so difficult for my child to stop cutting?

Often times, clients describe self-harming as a cycle. They may initially engage in the behaviors in order to cope with something distressing in their lives. Cutting may provide for an initially pleasant experience. However afterwards, the individual is often prone to feeling guilty and shameful for hurting themselves. These thoughts and feelings related to feeling negatively about one’s self and what they have done might then lead the person to cut/hurt themselves again. And the cycle keeps going.

What kind of signs can I look for to be able to tell if my child is self-harming?

Common signs might include scratches or marks (commonly on arms, legs, and stomach) that appear uniform or that look like a pattern. These marks may appear as several consecutive scratches in near perfect straight lines. There may be scars that look like they were caused by burns or cuts. When asked about the marks, the person is likely to blame them on an accident (ie. “the cat scratched me”). Some individuals attempt to hide their scars by wearing long sleeves in warm weather, which can be another tell-tale sign. The person may seem withdrawn, emotional, and spending more time alone. It’s also helpful to consider whether the person has been experiencing any stressors in their life. Finally, signs might include sharp or dangerous objects in the household that have gone missing.

What should I do if my child is self-harming?

First and foremost: talk to your child in a loving way about what you’ve noticed and do NOT ignore the behavior. Offer support and guidance. Explain your desire as a loving parent to keep your child safe, and remove any dangerous items in the child’s possession. At this point, your support and loving attitude might encourage the child to turn in their self-harming instruments. Absolutely seek help for your child and the family by engaging a therapist or psychologist. The child will likely benefit from therapy, and it will be a process for them to work through their difficulties. There are also therapeutic group experiences your child can engage in so that they can be supported by peers dealing with similar issues. These are much healthier options than the support so many children seek via social media.

If you are concerned that your child may be self-harming, consider contacting the Naperville Counseling Center for guidance. We are here to help parents and children through these types of difficulties, and offer individual, family, and group therapy.