What is self-harm?
Self-harm, also called self-injury, is often characterized by physically injuring one’s body without suicidal intent. It usually manifests in self-inflicted violence like skin cutting, head banging, burning, excessive skin picking, bruising, hair-pulling, poisoning, and overdosing. It typically happens repeatedly and impulsively, but are not intended to cause lethal harm.
It occurs in approximately 1% to 4% of adults in the United States, while adolescents appear to be at a higher risk for self-harm at about 15%. The highest risk for exists among college students, with rates ranging from 17% to 35%.
Self-harm in children
Self-harm usually starts in the middle adolescence stage, sometimes earlier, and the compulsion develops shortly after. Further studies also found out that among secondary school and young adult populations, 12% to 24% engage in the practice.
The practice of self-harm in children and teenagers should not be misconstrued as a fleeting adolescent problem. For some, the behavior lasts well into adulthood as the act is cyclical or practiced for periods of time, stopped, then resumed.
Causes of self-harm
In most cases, people who practice self-harm or self-injury recount feelings of emptiness and loneliness, over or under stimulation, and fear of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities. They cope with these painful and hard-to-express feelings through self-harming as they see it as one way they could control over their bodies when they can’t control anything else in their lives.
Self-harm in children and young adults is attributed to different causes. From curiosity to boredom, it’s not always easy to work out why children engage in self-harm. Those who engage in self-harm usually intend to get some relief from negative feelings or mental state caused by childhood trauma resulting from other Adverse Childhood Experiences, known as ACEs. Self-harm also has biological effects, such as the release of endorphins in response to physical injury to induce pleasant feelings.
Self-harm in children should always be taken seriously. It is vital for parents, educators, medical providers, and school administrators to not just recognize the behavior but also to know what it is and what it is not, what factors contribute to it, as well as how to detect and spot the signs.
Spotting the warning signs may be tricky and difficult at first, especially since most children go to great lengths to cover their self-inflicted injuries or scars. The physical signs seem to be the easiest to discover; for example, teens who self-harm are highly likely to keep themselves covered in long-sleeved clothing regardless of the weather. Emotional signs, on the other hand, are more difficult to spot and are by no means conclusive. Depression, isolation, withdrawal, and unusual eating habits, coupled with physical signs are a cause for concern and would warrant immediate intervention.
Showing your understanding and expressing your desire to help are necessary during self-harm intervention and help. Take the time to get to the bottom of what may be bothering the child so you can think of ways to avoid and/or prevent possible triggers. It is important that the child knows they can trust you as this helps build their confidence in the long run as well. The sooner you understand possible reasons for a child’s self-harm tendencies, the sooner you can help them find new ways to cope.
Cornell research program on self-harm and recovery
Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine
US National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health