Self-harm includes any deliberate behavior that is aimed at bringing physical harm on one’s body in order to reduce emotional pain. Self harm can occur in various forms like cutting, burning,scratching, bruising, hair-pulling or poisoning. Self harming behavior is not uncommon in children and young people and according to a survey conducted by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation(2013), Self-harm is the top reason for adolescent or youth deaths in India causing close to 60,000 deaths annually in the age group of 15-24 years. 

Why do children engage in Self-harm?

There are a number of reasons why children resort to self harm as a way to cope with their emotional distress and often there are strong and painful feelings that are associated with this behavior. Some of the feelings underlying self harm can be: 

  • Low self-esteem and low confidence
  • Loneliness
  • Intense feelings of sadness and/or anger
  • Feelings of helplessness or perceived lack of control over one’s life. 
  • Feelings of self-loathing or shame

Irrespective of the underlying emotional motivation for harming oneself, the self-harming behavior provides a release for one’s emotional pain. Often children find it difficult to articulate what they are feeling and to talk about their negative thoughts and emotions. In these cases, self-harm becomes an outlet through which they are able to express their pain. Self harm can also be a way for the child to express his/her feelings of self-loathing or shame. Another possible reason for self-harm is that it provides a sense of control as physical pain is more manageable than emotional pain. Thus a child who feels helpless might engage in self-harm to feel like he/she is in control of some aspect of their life.  Sometimes by injuring themselves, people are able to distract themselves from overwhelming life situations and emotional distress as they become focused on the physical pain. 

Self harming behavior in children is usually a method of coping and not a cry for attention as it is often assumed to be. Research shows that self harm can become addictive as when a child self-harms, endorphins get released in the bloodstream and this rush of feel good hormones get associated with the act of self-harming. Thus the child will begin to associate self harm with the soothing rush of the endorphins and a distraction from emotional pain.

What are some of the signs you can look for to determine if your child is engaging in self harm?

Children who engage in self-harm often try various ways to cover the scars and other signs of their behavior.However if you pay close attention these are some the signs to look for if you suspect your child is self-harming:

  • Physical signs: scars, cuts, bruises,bloodstains, bald patches from pulling out hair, etc. They might wear long-sleeved clothes and be very careful about hiding their body. 
  • Emotional signs:  withdrawal and isolation. They might show reduced motivation and feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, anger, etc. 
  • There might also be sudden changes in eating and sleeping habits.  

How can you help your child cope with Self-harm?

If you find that your child is engaging in self-harm, then one of the most essential things to do is to take the child to a psychologist or therapist and seek professional help.This is important as a professional can help determine if the self-harm is suicidal or not and will actively help find ways to cope with the problem. 

There are certain techniques that you can use to further help your child:

  • Talk about self-harm openly with your child and show that you understand what he/she is going through. Try to understand the child's motivations and underlying emotions for engaging in this behavior. It is important that you provide the space for the child to be able to express his/her thoughts and feelings without the fear of being judged, scolded or ignored by you. 
  • Try and identify the triggers. Helping the child talk about when he/she feels like self-harming and identifying these situations, negative thoughts and emotions is important so that the child can be better prepared in the future.Writing down these thoughts and feelings that are identified is also a great way to identify and recognize them 
  • Help your child find less severe ways to cope with his/her emotional pain. Some techniques are, using a red marker to make lines on one’s wrist as away to imitate the cutting behavior in an adaptive manner. Tearing a cutout of one's hand, holding ice cubes, snapping a rubber band around one’s wrist,drawing on oneself, writing healing statements on one’s body are some of the various behaviors that one can substitute self-harming behaviors with. 
  • Help your child develop adaptive coping strategies and effective ways to deal with stress and negative emotions. This will be a gradual process but is important as your child will be better able to deal with stress in the future.One of the ways to do this would be using positive imagery and helping the child visualize a calm and serene space. This will help reduce the anxiety that comes with negative emotions. Encouraging the child to exercise and engaging in productive physical activity (dancing, playing a sport, etc) is also a good way to deal with stress and emotional turmoil.