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  • Dr Anjali Raj Arun

How to help a child when you suspect they might be inflicting self-injury

Have you ever seen a child or a teen you know harm themselves? The idea of self-harm may be bewildering to many people. But it is fairly more common than you might think.

All a parent wants is for their child to be happy and safe. So it could be terrifying for the parent when they discover their child has been harming themself. Knowing what warning signs a child could exhibit when they have been having thoughts about self-harm can save the child from a great deal of trauma, physical and psychological. Here’s what I, a healthcare professional, think you should know about identifying self-harm-related behavior in children and how to help them.

Self-harm or self-injury is the act of deliberately hurting oneself physically. Some kids hurt themselves as an expression of the anguish they feel inside, it is how they cope with negative thoughts. These thoughts about wanting to hurt themselves could be the result of an underlying psychiatric illness like Depression, Substance abuse, or Schizophrenia, which are the direct result of an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Studies suggest self-harm causes a release of endorphins in the brain that provide a temporary sensation of relief from the psychological torment the kids are going through. However, it is not a healthy coping mechanism and can be associated with the risk of developing suicidal behavior at a later stage in life. Additionally, there is always the hazard of accidentally succumbing to the injuries inflicted impulsively, without the intent of wanting to kill themselves. According to the Journal of Affective disorders (Volume 306), the incidence of Non-Suicidal Self Injury is high in young women of age between 16 and 19.

There are many ways in which children might harm themselves. They might

● Hit their head against the wall

● Scratch, bruise, or cut themselves with sharp objects

● Pulling out their hairs

● Hit or bite themselves

● Punch walls

● Burn their skin

Signs of self-harm

Children who harm themselves tend to hide most things they do, in an attempt to conceal their injuries from their parents. Here are some signs to watch out for if you suspect self-harming behavior in your child.

The child may

● try to cover their body by wearing long sleeves and long pants to hide their cuts, bruises, and burns

● Lose interest or tend to avoid activities they usually enjoy

● Try to hoard sharp objects like blades, knives, razors, and lighters that could potentially be used to harm themselves

● Have intense, impulsive, and unpredictable emotions and behaviors

● Have multiple wounds at various stages of healing on different parts of their body

What can you do if your child is engaging in self-harming behavior?

It is natural for a parent to experience fear, confusion, and even anger when they find out their child is self-harming. It may not be easy for a parent to put their emotions aside to understand their child’s feelings and help them feel better. But it is important to remain calm and try to listen to the child in order to gain insight into what the child must be feeling their thoughts and behaviors. Being respectful and non-judgemental is crucial while talking to the child.

Here are a few ways you can approach this situation as a parent

● Talk to your child in a calm and comforting voice

● Never force them to talk or try to judge them as they speak

● Reassure them of your support

● Make sure you validate your child’s feelings and emotions, but not the behavior. Make them understand it is okay to feel upset, but hurting themselves to cope with their feelings is not acceptable.

● Help your child channel their emotions in non-harmful ways such as hitting a pillow when angry, or going for a walk.

● Help them engage in mindful activities like breathing exercises, yoga, or music

● Address the issue and seek professional help for your child when needed.

Licensed therapists may help the child with building better-coping strategies to avoid self-harming. They can treat the child using various methods such as psychotherapy, counseling, and parental and family therapy.

It is also crucial to be aware of your mental health and emotional well-being when you are dealing with a child who harms themselves. Always seek professional help if you feel the need to talk about how the behavior of your child is affecting your well-being.


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