You can’t imagine that your child or teen would ever engage in self-injury. But you notice unusual cuts, scratches or bruises on her arms or legs. Maybe he is wearing long sleeves or pants, despite the hot weather.  Could they be hurting themselves?

March 1 is National Self-Injury Awareness Day

The statistics are scary; so frightening that March 1 has been designated as National Self-Injury Awareness Day. Each year, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI. Most people start the behaviors in their teen or tween years.


What is Self-Injury?

Jamie Smith, LMFT, is a counselor at the Couples and Family Wellness Center in Berwyn, PA who specializes in working with teens, tweens, and their families. She describes self-Injury, or self-harm as it is more commonly known, as any behavior that leads to purposeful injury. Some common examples of self-harming behaviors include head banging, hair pulling and cutting. These behaviors are most typically observed in tweens, teens and young adults. Given that cutting is a common NSSI seen within middle and high school students, she refers mostly to this behavior.

Why Do People Self-Harm?

According to Jamie, most often, self-harm is triggered by intense emotions and a lack of healthy ways to deal with these feelings. In talking with teens who self-injure, they cite many different reasons that they identify self-harm as being a helpful, albeit an unhealthy coping skill. Many teens tell Jamie that the pain allows them to “feel something.”  Others report that it is a good distraction from the thoughts in their head.

Physiologically, endorphins are released when a body experiences pain. Once released, the endorphins naturally produce a positive feeling within the body. Studies find that pain leads to decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with negative emotions. Self-harming behaviors quickly become part of a pattern which can be difficult to break, especially if someone does not have healthy and useful coping skills to replace this behavior.

Cutting is never something to take lightly, but it is important to note that if your teen or tween is self-harming, it does not automatically mean that they are wanting to die by suicide. However, it does mean that your child is experiencing overwhelming emotions, and needs additional support.

Signs Your Teen or Tween May Be Self-Harming

  • Unexplained cuts or scratches along your child’s arms or legs. These are the more common places someone will cut, but other sites may include their torso and thighs.
  • Difficulty managing day-to-day life.
  • Abrupt changes in mood or behavior.
  • A significant change in relationships, communication or school performance.
  • Wearing clothes that are inappropriate for the weather (i.e. long sleeves or pants when it is too hot outside).

How to Help Your Self-Injuring Teen or Tween

If you have noticed any of the warning signs and are concerned that your child may be engaging in self-harming behaviors, here are some ideas about how to address this concern:

  • STAY CALM! While this can be a scary scenario, it is important to show your child that you are there to support them. Do not yell at or punish them for this behavior Keep in mind that this is their idea of a coping skill.
  • Be sure to seek out proper medical care if you notice that the cuts are deep or appear to be infected.
  • It is alright to express your concern. Tell your teen or tween that  you hope they will feel comfortable enough to talk with a trusted adult about what they are experiencing. If they do not yet feel safe talking to you, suggest they speak with another appropriate adult (counselor, trusted family member, etc.).
  • Counseling can be an important intervention to help your child decrease the harmful behavior and increase their use of healthy coping skills. Counseling also can be helpful for the rest of the family to learn how best to support your child.

Jamie Smith and the counselors at the Couples and Family Wellness Center want to help you help your child who is engaging in self-injury. Contact us today to schedule a free 15-minute phone consult to determine how we can provide your family with pain relief.