Emotional distress, uncomfortable feelings and other stressors can lead some children and teens to engage in non-suicidal self-injury, such as cutting or scratching themselves. If this is the case for your child, we're here to help. The team of experts at Children’s Health℠ aims to get to the root of why children and adolescents engage in these behaviors and help them cope in healthier ways. We also conduct research to find new ways to help these children.
Non-suicidal self-injury, also known as self-injury, is the intentional harming of one’s own body tissue (e.g., skin), most often done to cope with uncomfortable emotions and always done without intending suicide.
Most children injure themselves as a way to cope and regulate their emotions. Some see it as a way to decrease emotional pain and tension because physical pain may seem more tolerable.
Children and teenagers who injure themselves may:
Common signs and symptoms of self-injury in children and teens include:
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes non-suicidal self-injury in children. Most children injure themselves to cope with emotional distress. Some may hurt themselves at first by accident and find that it decreased the intensity of their emotions in that moment, and then later purposely self-injure when feeling emotionally overwhelmed again. Others may have learned about the behavior from others, like the media or friends, as a way to cope, and try it for themselves. The condition often appears with depression, anxiety or eating disorders, but even children and adolescents who do not struggle with a mental health disorder may self-injure.
Your child probably understands that you don’t want them to injure themselves, so telling them to “just stop it” isn’t going to work. Instead, we’ll talk to them about their reasons for engaging in this behavior. Then we’ll create a treatment plan, tailored to their response.
The best way to treat self-injury is by helping children regulate their emotions and adding healthy coping strategies that serve the same or similar function to replace the self-injury. The focus on this type of treatment is not changing the emotions themselves but changing how children and teens respond to their emotions. We offer:
We have a variety of psychologists and psychiatrists who can help treat your child.
Instead of asking, “Why would you do this?” try asking, "How does this help you?" By showing compassion, you’ll let your child know that you’ll always be there for them, no matter what they’re going through. It is okay to kindly express your concern about the behavior while simultaneously offering support. Starting an honest conversation helps open the doors to meeting with a professional.
According to the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury, 18% of adolescents engaged in some type of non-suicidal self-injury.
Primary triggers include those involving emotional distress, such as rejection, upsetting a friend or loved one and feeling at fault, a breakup or loss of a friendship, or bullying. These events may leave kids feeling like they deserve to be punished. Other reasons include instability at home, having friends who self-injure, alcohol or drug use, confusion about personal or sexual identity, being mistreated due to sexual or gender identity, or underlying mental health conditions.