Pinching, biting, burning, head banging, kicking or punching walls. These are some of the most popular forms of self-harm. What should you do if you catch your child engaging in one of these acts? And why are they doing this?
“It’s a very complex issue,” explains Dr. Melissa Butler, a clinical psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “Self-harm is often a way of coping with negative emotions. In a young child, it is often because they cannot express their feelings or get their needs met. In adolescents, it could be because they are feeling like no one cares. Sometimes they are depressed. Unfortunately, as children get older, it can also be done to fit in with a certain group.”
Self-harm releases endorphins that help the individual feel better – it becomes a coping mechanism. It can be difficult to treat children who self-harm because it is such an effective technique for the child. Regardless of the reason for the behavior – whether emotional or social – the harm becomes a part of who they are and how they identify themselves.
However, all self-harm behavior has the potential of becoming dangerous. “Children can be poor planners,” Dr. Butler explains. “They may not want to actually die, but may do something that puts them in harm’s way. The reason for the behavior doesn’t negate that. Even kids we know that aren’t trying to kill themselves could make a mistake.”
In younger children, self-harm can occur in several forms; banging their head against the wall, punching or pinching themselves, biting themselves or punching or kicking a wall. As a parent, there is a fine line to walk to help your child address these behaviors. Dr. Butler cautions against being punitive or giving too much attention to the actual behavior as that will reinforce the act. Instead, it is advised that you help your child calm down and then speak about how they are feeling.
Teaching young children the proper coping skills to handle difficult emotions is the best way to end self-harm behaviors. Working with a mental health professional, you and your child can learn how to self-soothe and develop the skills necessary to work through these challenging emotions without resorting to harm. The good news is that young children who self-harm do not necessarily become adolescents who self-harm.
In adolescents, self-harm techniques are as limited as one’s imagination. “The most frequent are scratching and cutting,” Dr. Butler describes. “But they also burn themselves with lighters, pull out their hair and more. There are also websites that teach children how to self-harm and not get caught. These sites reinforce, encourage and aid kids, and they also provide a place for competition – each child trying to outdo the last in their act of self-harm.”
Dr. Butler’s advice is the same for parents of teens as it is for younger children: don’t focus on the act itself, instead focus on their feelings. Additionally, she advises that the majority of teens should talk to a professional who can help determine why this behavior occurs and evaluate the risk of suicide.
For both young children and adolescents, it is very important to always address the behavior. “One of the places that adults can go wrong is what I call the attention-seeking dismissal,” says Dr. Butler. “They believe the child just wants attention so they dismiss it. While that may be true, it’s a very dangerous and unhealthy way to try and get attention, and something needs to be done.”
While each child is unique, and so are their reasons for self-harm, it is important to not reinforce or dismiss the behavior. No matter the age group, it is always best to seek a professional opinion to guarantee that your child receives the proper assistance.
-- By Gia Miller