Recognizing Self-Harming Behavior

depressed woman having headache and stress

Self-harming behavior is not a new phenomenon.  False prophets in Elijah’s day cut themselves until the blood flowed as they tried to appease the Baal god.  (See 1 Kings 18:28)  However, self-harming behavior among children and teens has been on the rise for the past decade or so.

Self-harming behavior (also known as self-injurious, self-mutilation, or self-abuse) is defined as the deliberate, repetitive, impulsive, non-lethal harming of oneself.  It often takes the form of burning (matches, cigarettes, or hot sharp objects), cutting (randomly or carving words or symbols in the skin), head-banging, or piercing the skin with sharp objects.  While specific statistics are hard to come by, this behavior is common among children and teens of average to advanced intelligence that come from middle to upper class families.  The occurrence seems to be greater in females; perhaps because males have more socially acceptable expressions of harm through contact sports.

Most self-harming individuals suffer from low self-esteem, lack of purpose, and feeling invalidated.  They can confess to feeling “invisible” to family and friends or “emotionally dead inside.”  While it may not make sense to a lot of us, self-harming individuals describe their behavior as a way to release anxiety and tension.  Some report that the physical pain provides a distraction from their emotional pain.  This is not too far-fetched in that scientific research reports significant endorphin release during self-harming behavior which affects the pleasure center in the brain.  Others say they hurt themselves to express emotional pain or feelings they can’t put into words.

The self-injury is an impulsive act that brings a momentary sense of calm and a release of tension.  It is usually followed by guilt, shame and the return of the painful emotions.

Myths about self-harming behavior:

  • “Self-harming Teens have a Borderline Personality Disorder” – Many are mis-diagnosed by inexperienced therapist who incorrectly apply adult standards to teen behaviors.
  • “Self-harming Teens have been Victims of Abuse” – Some are, but by no means all. The behavior is an attempt to find relief for a variety of emotional distresses.
  • “Self-harming Teens are Suicidal” – They do not want to die. A suicidal individual seeks to end all feelings.  One who self-harms is seeking to feel better.
  • “Body Piercing and Tattooing are Signs of Self-Harming” – Individuals sport colorful tattoos and elaborate piercings as an attempt to make themselves more attractive, not find quick relief from emotional distress.

Signs and symptoms to watch for include: scars, fresh cuts or scratches on the skin, keeping sharp objects on hand, wearing long sleeves or long pants (even in hot weather), spending a great deal of time alone, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, mood swings, impulsivity, and expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness.

Self-harming behavior is a serious concern.  Both individual and family counseling are warranted in treating this matter.  A qualified and experienced counselor can come along side and help offer solutions.  To locate such a counselor, contact us at 520-800-9108 or through the contact form.

© 2019 by Roger Daniels