Information and Resources
Self-Injury: What you need to know
Self-injury refers to various behaviors in which a person intentionally inflicts harm to his/her body. The following behaviors most commonly associated with self-injury include:
- cutting, carving, or punctures of the skin
- ripping or pulling of skin or hair
These behaviors can be performed on any part of the body but most often occur on the stomach, thighs, hands, and wrists. Self-injury is sometimes also called deliberate self-harm or self-harm, self-injurious behavior, self-mutilation, cutting, or non-suicidal self-injury.
People who self-injure often report feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions or the feeling of emotional numbness and sadness as reasons for self-injury. They often report that self-injury is a way to manage and cope with their negative feelings or as a way to experience some sense of feeling. Self-injury has been reported as a way to manage feelings of anxiety, a way to feel in control of one's body, to express feelings, to communicate needs, to create a visible wound, or to protect others from one's emotional pain. Self-injury can occur at any age, however, it most often begins in middle adolescence, between the ages of 12-15.
Many people who self-injure do so in secrecy. Although it is normal for adolescents to pull away from their parents during times of high involvement with friends or stress, it is not normal for adolescents to be withdrawn, physically and/or emotionally, for long periods of time. It is also important to understand that not all people who self-injure become distant and withdrawn. Youth who put on a happy face, even when they do not feel happy, may be at a risk for self-injury and other negative coping skills.
*Information in this smore has been adapted from the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.
The goal in working with kids who self-injure is to explore new, healthy coping skills and to help cultivate a safe place to talk through things that had emotional impact on them leading up to the self-injury. Counseling can help kids learn to understand their feelings, communicate them and identify alternate ways of coping. Self-injury is coping, but there are healthier ways to cope! Read on to find alternative and healthy coping options...
Truth: People of all ages and backgrounds self-injure. Teenagers may be more emotionally reactive and have less experience concealing the self-injury, making it more visible.
Myth: People who self-injure are seeking attention
Truth: For most people, self-injury is a means of coping with intense or unwanted emotions and many go to great lengths to conceal the self-injury.
Myth: People who self-injure are suicidal
Truth: The relationship between self-injury and suicidal thoughts and behavior is complex. While self-injury is usually used as a way to cope with life rather than end it, people who self-injure are at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The language that we use confuses self-injury and suicidal behavior. The term "deliberate self-harm' is defined as any self-inflicted damage to the body regardless of suicidal intent. This means that any talk of self-harm includes both self-injury and suicidal thoughts. So figuring out when a behavior is motivated by a desire to end life and when it is not can be tricky.
Myth: We are in the midst of a self-injury 'epidemic'
Truth: It is likely that as a result of self-injury being more visible publicly, more people are willing to talk about self-injury. We do not know if more people are self-injuring and more research is needed.
Myth: Social media is contributing to self-injury
Truth: Social media has several potential benefits including it being a means to reach individuals who self-injure who may not otherwise seek support. However, there are also potential risks including increased exposure and engagement in self-injury behavior in vulnerable adolescents.
Talking about Self-Injury with Children and Adolescents
If you have reason to believe a child/adolescent is self-injuring, approach the topic with respectful curiosity. Rather than beginning with questions that might feel judgmental or interrogating, share your concerns in a way that invites discussion.
What doesn't work
- Jumping in to solve the problem
- Harsh or lengthy punishments
- Body checks (if parents periodically check for cuts/self-injury, this can feel very intrusive and work against building trust--and typically kids just get better at hiding it anyway--it is best to open up communication versus doing body checks--counseling can often help with this!)
What does work
- Using a calm, low-key tone and approach
- Respectful curiosity
- Validating the person's feelings
- Acknowledging students may not be ready to stop--be patient with the process and acknowledge progress, even if small