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Signs your Child might be Self-Harming, Why they Might be Doing it and How to Help

Author: Jennifer Keenan

31st Oct 2013

Signs your Child might be Self-Harming, Why they Might be Doing it and How to Help
Self harm in a young child will occur in a different way to that of a teenager. A younger child may have scrapes or marks that may seem to take a long time to heal over or red marks from constantly rubbing the same area.
Hair pulling may also be an approach more common in younger children. Hair pulling is a compulsive disorder whereby the person pulls on the hair strand by strand as a means of distraction, in particular when the child is anxious.
The older child will use alternative methods which, while they may start as small, will no doubt increase in intensity both in physical and emotional terms.
Children who are self-harming become well mastered in secrecy and as so it is rare to just discover their self harm. Instead it is important to look out for the following behaviours:
 - Scratches, marks, bruises and cuts that are explained away with flimsy excuses. If these excuses are repeatedly used to explain such marks, it may be worth keeping a closer eye on the child and investigating further.
 - Clothing can be another indicator of self harm, long-sleeved tops and T-shirts even in warm weather as well as long trousers or a refusal to participate in experiences where they would be required to show arms, legs or chest.
 - Another indicator of possible self harm is a collection of possible self-harming items and not just the obvious scissors, blades, etc, but compasses, pieces of glass, etc.
 - The child's personality and overall behaviour can be indicators also, a child who isolates themselves from family or friends, spends ever increasing amounts of time alone or involved in solitary pursuits. They may be highly sensitive easily hurt or upset, be aware of their language and how they speak of themselves, they may make derogatory remarks about themselves.
Anti-social behaviour may increase their mood and behaviours may change and they could become involved in drug or alcohol use. It is also important to remember that self harm can go hand in hand with other behaviours, notably eating disorders of anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
What might lead to a child or young person to begin to self harm?
Certain factors seem to be common among those that self harm, these include: parental illness or addiction. Children are more aware of their families' problems than we realise and a parent's illness is a particularly unsettling time. If this is the case it is important they be included and kept informed but in an age appropriate way.
Sexual abuse is another obvious cause of someone entering into self-harming. For many people this issue causes confusion, 'why them?' Did they do something to make it happen? Of course the answer is no, but this can be deeply confusing for a child or young adult. This confusion and anger can in some cases be turned inwards in a case of self harm.
Physical or emotional neglect or abuse can be a contributing factor as can a lack of attachment with one or both parents or care-givers. If a child feels the parent is ambivalent to their feelings or struggles to understand them they may turn to self harm to cope.
Although many of the clients I have worked with find it difficult to express why they self harm or even how it helps, we know there are several reasons behind this particular coping mechanism. It is often performed for the following reasons:
 - To communicate
If you cannot communicate your emotions or struggle to do so, even to yourself, trying to explain to someone else how your feeling is immensely difficult. We know that young people use their bodies to communicate normally through dress or hair colour or cut, but also through piercings, tattoos and at times self harm.
 - To calm or subdue
Many of the clients I have worked with will say that they feel overwhelmed by their emotions as though they are being swallowed up by them to the point that they themselves cannot identify where one begins and another ends. Clients report using self harm as a way to let some steam off and to release the inner pressure.
 - Emotional pain
A first experience of grief, the end of a relationship, a break-up of a family or the death of a beloved parent or grandparent or the difficulties of growing or developing as well as managing your way in a peer group or pressures at school.
 - Anxiety
Fear, tension and panic can be difficult for people to deal with no matter what their age. In extreme cases people can develop panic attacks, social phobias and even obsessive compulsive disorder.
 - Neediness
If a child feels they are lacking in physical or emotional attention, they may well substitute this by self-harming in order to care for and nurture themselves.
 - Self-Hatred
This is usually as a result of abuse and the self harm where the young person feels the need to release something or to punish themselves.
 - Anger
One of the most common emotions that I hear young people say they struggle to express as well as to recognise within themselves. More and more I see young people feeling as though they have no right to express their anger and as a result they become afraid of tapping into it, afraid of not being able to control it if they do. As a result they turn that anger inwards and they use self harm in order to express as well as release that pent-up anger.
What a Parent can do next
Now that you are aware, it is important that it be addressed and not thought of as a phase to be waited out. As confused as you may be it is important to address the situation and not be afraid to be direct. Letting them know what you have been told/seen or suspect yourself, that you are concerned for them and that you want to help.
Gently help them to acknowledge that they have a problem and that they may want to consider talking to someone in a professional manner. They may well become defensive, it is important that they realise that their self harm affects their family and not just them. While their self harm may be secretive it is this very factor that means that self harm as a coping mechanism has a very short life, emphasising the importance of developing further coping mechanisms aside from self harm.
They believe that self harm is working as a coping mechanism and preventing suicide as they have no other forms of support open to them - this is where therapy can help them realise the supports around them and to examine other coping strategies to deal with their problems.
It is also common that the discussion around stopping can increase the perceived need to self harm. This is fairly common in self harm as they do not believe that any other way will work as well as how they currently cope. Nothing will work as well as self harm does or they may not be able to stop at all.
If you do indeed decide to enter into therapy, it is important to consider the following when choosing a therapist:
 - That they have relevant experience and qualifications when dealing with people who self harm.
 - That they are respectful and compassionate.
 - That they have a clear understanding of the needs of someone who self harms.
 - That there is an understanding that self harm is a coping strategy and not a form of attention seeking manipulation.
 - That the therapist realises the difference between self harm and suicide.

Jennifer Keenan is a Dublin based psychotherapist who deals with a wide range of issues including self harm.

To get in touch with her you can visit her Dublin Holistic Centre counselling and psychotherapy page or visit the Jennifer Keenan Counselling & Psychotherapy website.

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