Self Harm

"Why do you hurt yourself?"


Is What I’m Seeing Normal?

Youth can feel just as upset, stressed or overwhelmed as any adult, even when their life situations may not seem as important to an adult. Sometimes youth are not able to cope with overwhelming emotions and they may experience feeling helpless. Youth may harm themselves in order to cope with painful or difficult emotions or distress, to feel some sense of control when they feel helpless, or to feel pain that they can control. It is important to know that while most youth who harm themselves do not want to kill themselves, it is still a cry for help. It is also important to be aware that some youth who self harm may be experiencing depression and anxiety and may have thoughts of suicide. Moreover, some self harm can accidentally kill a youth.


Should I be worried?

You may have noticed that the youth you are concerned with consistently wears long- sleeve shirts and long pants (even in warmer weather) and that they seek a lot of private time in their room or isolate themselves when upset or distressed. You may have also have noticed some scars, cuts or burns on their arms, abdomen or legs, or blood stains on their clothing. They may be telling you that the burns or cuts are “accidents”. They may also be avoiding talking to you or joining in family events. You may have found some cutting tools in their bedroom such as knives, razors, pins, or needles. These may all be warning signs that the youth you are concerned with is self-harming.


Youth who self-harm are looking for a way to deal with severe emotional pain. It’s possible that these youth never learned how to identify or express difficult feelings in a healthy way. Acts of self-harm are sometimes done on impulse, sometimes learned from others, and sometimes are planned. Youth who self-harm have different experiences of it: some say that don’t feel pain when they hurt themselves; some say that they do it to feel physical pain instead of the emotional pain; some people even feel a rush, sense of relief, or “high” when they self-harm. Most people who self-harm say that they feel some relief and calm after self-harming, but unfortunately this does not last long and can cause the behavior to increase or become worse. It is important to know that self-harming is not a healthy way to cope. It is a behavior that can turn into a physically dangerous habit, as it has an addictive quality because of the sense of relief it can provide. This relief may be from anxious thoughts or feelings, or a way to stimulate the self away from depressive thoughts and emotions.


How Can I Help?

As a parent or caregiver, if you suspect the youth you are concerned about may be self-harming, you will be more helpful if you remain calm and non-judgmental. It is more important to listen to what the youth wishes to share with you than to panic and give advice or direction. Remember it has taken a lot of energy and a lot of time to maintain the self harming behavior a secret and the youth may feel ashamed if you are blaming and judging them instead of providing a shoulder to cry on, compassion and caring.


 Each youth is different and each one will have a different story to share…give them the time to share these strong emotions that they have been having a very difficult time coping with on an ongoing basis. It is ok to ask to see the scars, cuts or burns to ensure they don’t need any medical attention. It is important to gently offer the option of seeking confidential professional help to properly assess for any mental health factors such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. and for them to receive proper therapy and support.


Reassure them that you are there for them and that they can talk to you about the self harming behavior without advising, questioning, or blaming. To this end, it also may be important for you as a caregiver to seek supportive counseling if you are finding it difficult to cope with the self harm. It is also helpful if you educate yourself on youth and self-harming, also known as cutting, or self-injurious behavior.


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