Self-harm: what it is, warning signs, & ways to help

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm or self-injury is when you deliberately hurt your own body as a way of coping with very strong or difficult feelings. Typically, people who self-harm do not want to die. It is used as a way to release or cope with painful emotions. Self-harm can happen at any age, but is most common during teenage and young adult years.

Common Self-harming Behaviors

Self-harm manifests differently with each person, however some common behaviors include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Scratching
  • Picking at wounds
  • Overdosing on medications
  • Hitting or punching oneself

Warning Signs

People who self-harm often try to hide it due to feelings of shame or worry of judgement from others. If you are concerned that your child may be self-harming, here are some signs to look for:

  • Frequent unexplained injuries
  • Wearing clothes that are inappropriate for the weather (i.e., long sleeves in hot weather)
  • Hiding sharp objects like scissors, knives, blades, or lighters and matches
  • Significant changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Isolation from friends or loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
  • Big changes in mood, more irritable, and easily agitated
  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt

Although self-harm is not the same as a suicide attempt, it can still be a major risk factor for suicide. If someone is engaging in self-harm, it may be helpful to see a mental health professional, therapist, or psychiatrist for support and further assessment.

Ways to Help

Learning that your child is self-harming/injuring can bring about a range of emotions from shock and denial to anger and guilt. It is important to remain calm and to use your concern in a constructive way to seek understanding from your child about their challenges. Some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Talk to your child as soon as you become aware of the behavior. Ask direct questions.
  • Listen to your child, take them seriously, and validate their feelings.
  • Avoid yelling, threats, putdowns, or ultimatums. Demanding that your child just stop is ineffective.
  • Consider ways to foster a protective home environment by modeling healthy ways of managing stress, having open lines of communication and mutual respect, setting healthy limits around technology, implementing family time, and practice identifying and using helpful coping strategies together.
  • Know that there is no shame in seeking professional help if necessary.

If you need more assistance, speaking with your family pediatrician is a good start, as they can help connect you to a mental health professional.This blog written by CHA Clinician, School-Based Therapy, Shayla St. James, M.E.d, LCMHC