Understanding self-harm

Sarah’s mother, Deborah, was hysterical. “My family and I have gone through a lot. Things haven’t been easy for either one of us. And now this! I cannot believe I didn’t notice that Sarah has been cutting herself for a few months now. I caught on when I noticed she was often wearing long sleeve shirts or hiding her wrists with lots of bracelets. I asked her why she was always wearing those bracelets and she got extremely defensive. So I became more curious as this continued for a few days. So I asked her to show me her arms and that’s when I saw all the scars on both arms.” Deborah was beside herself stating that she didn’t think her daughter was in this much pain and felt so helpless.

The stories from parents and caregivers share common themes. Most parents are upset and bewildered. “I don’t understand why my child would want to harm himself/herself?”

Sadly, Sarah is not alone. An estimated 2 to 3 million people in the United States engage in some sort of self-harm behavior. The most common is cutting, however, it not limited to this. Cutting, pulling out hair, burning, or striking self to the point of tissue damage are among some of the most common self-harm behaviors.

The most common method of self-harm is cutting with a knife, razor, or anything sharp.

Individuals often keep their habit a secret, as there is a tremendous amount of shame around it.

Why self-harm? Where does it start?

Hurting yourself, or thinking about hurting yourself is a sign of emotional distress such as sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness.

They are looking for a way to cope with the intensity of the pain.

For some, they could be feeling so numb that cutting allows them to feel pain at that moment.

Other reasons why an individual may start cutting:

Cutting is often a learned behavior from a peer; as it’s a common belief that it can actually help them feel better.

It’s something they have seen or read about on the internet or within social media platforms.

Sometimes, it’s a group of kids daring each other to start cutting.

Self-harm, in particular cutting, is a behavior that carries a great amount of shame and guilt. If the feelings of shame and guilt lead to intense negative feelings, the person will most likely hurt themselves again. The behavior becomes a vicious cycle and a long-term habit. Some people have even created rituals around cutting.

Self-harm doesn’t necessarily indicate suicidal ideations, however, if the person continues to harm self, he or she may be at increased risk of suicide. It is very important to treat the underlying emotions.

Self-harm is an unhealthy and dangerous behavior and can lead to scars, both physically and emotionally.

What can you do?

If your child is cutting, it is extremely important to understand that your reaction and interaction with the child is a vital part of recovery and healing.

Do not blame, or shame.

Be prepared to listen, even if it may be very uncomfortable and heartbreaking. It is ok to tell them, even though you may not fully understand, you’ll be there to help them.

Yes, you will be shocked, bewildered, and emotional. However, you must provide a safe, loving, and supportive environment for your child, as they are already afraid of being judged and ridiculed.

Through therapy and the support of the family, the child will unlearn that their feelings are wrong or invalid. They need to learn that it is ok to feel all those feelings. Most importantly, they need to learn healthy coping skills, and new ways to manage stress and emotions.


Kahila Hedayatzadeh, M.A.

MFT, Empowerment Coach

[email protected]