Non-suicidal self-injury, a form of self-harm, is when a child inflicts physical injury or pain on his or her own body, most often as a way to ease emotional distress. Non-suicidal self-injury is not the same as a suicide attempt, though some children and teenagers who engage in non-suicidal self-injury may report having suicidal thoughts. Children and teenagers who struggle with this condition may engage in cutting, scratching, hitting or burning themselves.
This condition often appears with depression, anxiety or eating disorders and can sometimes be related to trauma that the child has suffered or a sign of serious psychological disorders. Mental health specialists believe that some children with emotional problems may actually derive pleasure or comfort from self-injury.
Tests & Diagnosis
If you notice signs like small, linear cuts; unexplained bruises and scratches that appear regularly; or other signs of injury plus significant mood changes, out-of-control behaviors, poor school performance or a change in relationships, see your child’s doctor. The doctor will examine your child for these physical symptoms and ask your child questions about feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, loss of control and other emotional indicators.
If self-injury is suspected, a mental health specialist will evaluate your child and recommend a treatment plan. An evaluation will likely include questions about thoughts or urges to self-injure, in addition to questions about suicidal thoughts or past suicidal behavior. The mental health specialist will also ask questions to understand your child’s current coping skills and support systems in order to make recommendations about how you can support your child in using safer coping behaviors.
Although there are currently no evidence-based treatments specifically for non-suicidal self-injury, most treatments that are proven to effectively treat other mental health diagnoses may also indirectly treat the self-injury behavior. Many children who engage in self-injury respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy (a method of managing patterns of thinking that adversely impact mood and behavior), family therapy, medication or a combination of these options. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the behavior. Higher levels of care such as day treatment, intensive outpatient, or inpatient treatment may be necessary if your child’s self-injury is severe.
How can I aid in my child’s recovery?
Talk to your child to help him or her understand what stressful situations trigger negative feelings. Discuss the healthy ways you cope with your emotions. Show compassion if your child experiences setbacks or frustration, and encourage creative ways your child can express his or her feelings.
How common is this behavior?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 14 to 24% of adolescents and young adults have engaged in some type of non-suicidal self-injury.
What are some of the triggers for self-injury?
There are often many reasons why someone self-injures. Sometimes these behaviors stem from rejection such as bullying or the end of a relationship, instability at home, having friends who self-injure, having problems with alcohol or drug use, confusion about personal or sexual identity or underlying mental health conditions. Some children who injure themselves may have been emotionally, physically or sexually abused.
Where can I find support?
We will provide you with resources to help both you and your child. The Resources link on this webpage is also a good source for more information about self-injury and support.