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I'm worried my kid is self-injuring. What can I do?

Topics: Mental Health

Shared in partnership with the Child Mind Institute.

Intentionally cutting or scratching the skin to alleviate distress is common among teenagers. Kids who engage in non-suicidal self-injury can find online communities where people talk about cutting or other forms of self-harm. Some of these people might be sharing advice about how to stop, while others may be advocates for self-harm. This means that kids who are seeking connection with others online are at risk of connecting with people who nurture self-destructive behavior. In addition to the guidelines below, it's important for parents to be aware that kids may be engaged in these risky online relationships and should include disengaging from them as part of their recovery. (Visit the Child Mind Institute to learn more about self-injury.)

What is self-injury?

Self-injury is characterized by deliberately injuring oneself to alleviate some kind of emotional distress. The most common form of self-injury is cutting or scratching the skin, but people also self-injure by burning themselves, picking at skin and wounds, or hitting themselves. Self-injury is more common in girls than boys, and onset is often around puberty.

Signs your child may be self-harming:

  • Talking about self-injury
  • Suspicious-looking scars
  • Wounds that don't heal or get worse
  • Cuts on the same place
  • Increased isolation
  • Collecting sharp tools such as shards of glass, safety pins, nail scissors, etc.
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts in warm weather
  • Avoiding social activities
  • Wearing a lot of Band-Aids
  • Refusing to go into the locker room or change clothes in school

How to help

If you discover that a child has been hurting herself, it's important to have her evaluated by an experienced mental health professional to find out why she is self-injuring and what emotional difficulties she's experiencing.

Different kinds of therapy have been shown to help, including:

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): In this kind of therapy, a psychologist works with your child to help her learn how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings like anger, anxiety, and rejection without resorting to cutting.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): In CBT, a psychologist teaches your child to recognize and challenge negative, distressing thoughts and train herself to think outside of them.

Family therapy: If there are distressing things going on at home -- conflict, job loss, a death -- family therapy may be helpful.

A doctor may also prescribe medication if a person who is self-harming is also struggling with a disorder such as depression.

Learn more about the Child Mind Institute, an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disabilities.

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