Cutting, scratching, burning—why would anyone want to do this to themselves? It seems like a no-brainer, but the truth is that self-harm really can feel good to some people.Babies bang their heads when angry, frustrated, or in pain. We know this, most of us have witnessed it. But did we know that the initial pain causes a release of “feel good” chemicals in the body?
Banging his/her head allows the baby to alleviate the pain in some small degree. The behavior in infants is normal and should stop by the age of three or four years old. If the actions are severe or persist, it would be wise to ask a professional like the child’s doctor for an evaluation.
Some small children and teens will scratch themselves when frustrated and angry. They come to associate this action with a way to both feel better and punish themselves.
There are many reasons as to why a child will feel compelled to resort to such actions. It is important to watch for signs of self-harm in children and help them find different ways to cope.
As a baby, Brandi would bang her head in fits of anger or frustration. Her mother was baffled, as her first child did not behave that way. She read all she could and waited it out. Brandi was still banging her head as a preteen — not on the floor as she had when she could not walk, but she would slam her door and proceed to bang her head on the wall.
In time, Brandi turned to exercise as a way to release pent up energy. Brandi’s mother was pleased with her progress. Then one day, Brandi’s mother went into Brandi’s room. She had not been in the room for months. Shock filled her as she saw that Brandi had gouged her headboard to pieces with a knife.
Rather than make an issue of it, Brandi’s mother ignored it and continued to monitor her child. In time, Brandi stopped her destructive ways and went on to become a productive person in society. She is calm under most situations but has moments of frustration, but she no longer destroys things, though she might on occasion still smack herself upside the head.
How to React to Self-Harm Issues
Overreacting may not be the best way to handle a situation like head banging and scratching.
- A child may feel it is the only way to get attention, so they will do it more.
- A hysterical reaction might frighten the child.
- Respond in a calm, non-judgmental way; this can help to soothe the child.
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings and thoughts.
- Ensure they know you are available to talk at any time, instead of self-harming.
- Find ways to enhance self-esteem. Take their problems seriously.
- Help develop new ways to cope, along with communication and social skills.
One thing to understand is that a child, teen, or adult may prefer to discuss their self-harming actions more than they would like to discuss why they are upset in the first place.
Often a person will not even know the real reasons for their anxiety. In these situations, therapy may be the best option. A therapist can help one talk through their issues to find what is really bothering them.
When someone resorts to causing themselves pain, they feel an instant relief of pressure from ‘bad feelings.’ This relief does not last very long and is often replaced by feelings of guilt. This is how the cycle continues.
Karen Contero, author of Bodily Harm, states, “Self-harm typically starts at about age 14. But in recent years, we’ve been seeing kids as young as 11 or 12. As more and more kids become aware of it, more kids are trying it.” She goes on to say that the behavior can last into a person’s thirties, “People keep doing it for years and years, and don’t really know how to quit.”
Knowing that self-harm can be addictive is an important step in changing the behavior.
Jansen bit the inside of his cheek. It helped him be quiet when he wanted to yell. By the age of 14, almost anything could set him off: mean siblings, yelling parents, unfair teachers, or cruel classmates.
He was sad. He tried communicating his feelings, but no one seemed to understand how deeply emotional Jansen felt . . . about everything. He was depressed, but didn’t see it that way. This was simply life.
Biting his cheeks became a habit that caused him both pain and relief; the spike of victory he felt when he hurt himself reminded him he was real.
When things got really hard to process, Jansen took to scratching himself. Feverish anger and frustration flowed through him as he replayed the cruelty of his brother for mocking him.
He was sad, especially at home where he thought he could expect acceptance and love. At school, he became the class clown and was usually the teacher’s pet. He got good grades and teachers were often surprised to learn he had a lack of coping skills.
Self-harm was addressed in health class every year. Each time he imagined what it would feel like. Eventually, he chose to experiment. Little jabs from a pin didn’t feel like much. In fact, watching little drops of blood well up felt empowering. He allowed his anger to flow from his thoughts into the blood. He knew it didn’t make sense, but the numbness of his pain being transferred helped him cope. Soon he was cutting with blades.
College was both good and bad. Being out of the home was liberating but scary. A self-imposed need to get perfect grades caused greater anxiety. On bad days, cutting seemed to be the only answer. Then he found love and his depression left, for a while.
Depression is not something that simple positive thinking can remove. Poor coping skills like cutting and biting remained a part of Jansen until he learned new ways to react. Jansen learned through experience that cutting and biting his cheek did not solve his ability to relate socially with others or his girlfriend. After they broke up, he returned to his destructive behaviors.
Guilt and shame overcame him. Jansen realized he needed and wanted help. His parents had sent him to therapy before, but this time it was his choice. He wanted to learn what triggered him and what he could do to change.
Today he allows himself to cry. He speaks about why he is sad. He might find himself biting his cheek at times, but he no longer cuts himself.
Jansen still works on his social skills and self-esteem; these could be lifelong pursuits. But he now knows how to speak up when he feels overwhelmed by life.
The thing that helps the most is being able to identify what sets him off. He tries to avoid negative situations, but even when he can’t, he copes by expressing his feelings about the situation. Having a safe person to speak to also helps.
Forms of Self Injury
Self injury usually occurs in private and is done in a controlled or ritualistic manner that often leaves a pattern on the skin.
Examples of self-harm include:
- Cutting (cuts or severe scratches with a sharp object)
- Burning (with lit matches, cigarettes or hot, sharp objects like knives)
- Carving words or symbols on the skin
- Hitting or punching
- Piercing the skin with sharp objects
- Pulling out hair
- Persistently picking at or interfering with wound healing
The most common forms of self-injury are:
Cutting, making up 70%-90% of all cases.
Head banging (or hitting) makes up between 21%-44% of self-inflicted injuries.
Burning one’s body is done about 15%-35% of the time by those who self-harm.
Why People Self-Harm
- To relieve boredom
- It makes them feel better; it seems to release mental anguish
- It becomes a calming ritual
- It can remove all sense of emotion; it’s numbing
- It is addictive
- It is empowering
- To fit in (especially within teen Goth environments)
- To punish themselves
- It says things a person cannot verbalize
- They feel empty inside
- They feel lonely, misunderstood or fearful
- They hate or loath themselves; they feel worthless
- They do not know how to regulate or understand emotions
- They feel panic or anger
- It allows them to feel—something, anything at all
There are several sites online including YouTube where the glorification of cutting is encouraged. The gullibility of our youth makes such sites enticing. They share stories and show each other their scars. They write poetry making the act of cutting sensual and cool. Some claim that writing about it prevents them from doing it.
Nevertheless, the obsessive nature of the glorification of self-mutilation is unhealthy and is an indicator of a person’s state of mind. It is a very small percentage of youth doing this, but adults need to be aware of the environment and entertainment that their children participate in.
How Common is Self-Harm?Despite how common self-harm seems to be in some communities, it is very rare. About 4% of adults engage or have engaged in hurting themselves in a destructive manner in order to cause pain.
For teenagers it is higher, most grow out of the practice. The range is between 17%- 35%. For some teens, getting professional help is the best and most successful way to learn new methods of dealing with hard things.
Adults who have yet to find new skills would need to commit to sharing their feelings openly, admitting that being self-destructive has not really solved their problems and they need to be the one to say, “I want to change.”
As mentioned, age is a factor, as teens are the highest group to engage in self-harm.
Having Friends Who Self-Harm
As with all behaviors, some are learned and cutting can be seen as acceptable if one’s friend also engages in it.
Family and social environments can effect a person’s mental state and lack of coping skills. A person may be questioning their sexuality or are socially isolated.
Mental Health Issues
Self-harming persons are likely to be highly self-critical and poor problem-solvers.
The activity is self-evident when revealed. Whether it is a serious mental issue can only be determined by a mental health professional. Self-injury behaviors can be a symptom of mental illnesses such as personality disorders, bipolar disorder (manic depression), major depression, anxiety disorders (esp. obsessive-compulsive disorder), and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Body piercing, tattooing, scab picking, and nail biting do not qualify for the diagnosis, but they can and often are part of a cutter’s behavior.
Excessive alcohol or drug use
Usage of brain-altering substances increases the risk of those already inclined to self-harm.
Self Injury and Suicide
Most people who engage in self-mutilating activities are not suicidal. Many keep it secret, as it is not done for attention. They may even wear long sleeves even on hot days to keep their scars hidden.
This does not mean that some cutters who are severely depressed are not also suicidal. Some cutters may accidentally cut too deep, whereas others become upset with their own lack of control with their cutting and shame cycle until they decide suicide is their best option.
This is not true, and cutters need to seek help immediately should they feel inclined to suicide as a way to solve their problems.
A local Spokane suicide hotline number is:
First Call for Help: (509) 838-4428
A national suicide hotline number is:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255
Some things to be aware of concerning those who cut or burn include a greater degree of shame and guilt. Infections from wounds are a possibility. Permanent scars or disfigurement can happen.
The risk of accidental death is present when one engages in using blades and other severely sharp objects. Underlying issues and disorders may worsen if not properly treated.
If you see signs of cutting or burning, it’s best to confront your child or friend about it — it’s better to ask and be wrong than to not ask at all.
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