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Why do Children Self-Harm? - Causes & Help

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson goes over some of the many reasons why children might self-harm. You'll also learn some of the ways by which this can be managed including medically and otherwise.

Self-Harm

Self-harm is painful, and watching a child harm themselves or knowing that they have done so is just as painful in a different way. In this lesson, we're going to follow along with a mother, Maria, and her child, Bobby, who has been harming himself by cutting himself, pulling his hair, and via other ways. Along the way, we'll learn why Bobby, and children like him, self-harm and what kind of help he can get.

Causes

Maria tells us that when she found out that Bobby was harming himself, she was extremely alarmed and thought that he was suicidal. However, self-harm shouldn't always be equated with a suicide attempt. Instead, self-harm might be a coping mechanism for some children, a way to let go of overwhelming emotions.

Maria said that she immediately asked Bobby why he was harming himself, but Bobby said he didn't know why. This isn't strange. It's quite possible that children don't understand themselves why they are performing such actions.

After doing some research and counseling, Maria came to find out that, as with her son, there's usually no simple or single answer as to why a child is harming themselves. There can be a range and mix of possible causes, including the following:

  • An inability to deal with psychological pain in more healthy ways.
  • An inability to properly understand or express emotions.
  • A need to manage severe anxiety.
  • An attempt to cope with emotional abuse.
  • Due to relationship problems.
  • As a consequence of bullying.
  • Owing to immense pressures, such as performing well at school.
  • To serve as a distraction. In other words, the physical pain helps distract from emotional/psychological pain.
  • As a way to express their internal turmoil externally. This could be a way of communicating their feelings to others.
  • To give oneself some sort of feeling, even if it's negative, in cases when they feel emotionally empty.
  • To give oneself a sense of control over a situation.
  • To punish oneself for what the child believes is a fault of his or her own

Mental health conditions might also predispose to self-harm. Maria learned that these conditions include depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, and others.

Help

Maria rightfully didn't wait long to get Bobby some help. Thankfully, Maria knew not to threaten or accuse Bobby of anything, as that could've made things worse. She simply expressed her concern for him and then made an appointment with a health care professional, such as Bobby's pediatrician, in order to get him properly evaluated and referred to an appropriate mental health specialist.

The mental health specialist explained to Maria that there isn't a magic bullet for treating and managing self-harm. Each individual's unique circumstances will create a treatment plan unique to them. The mental health professional also tells Maria that treatments for self-harm are usually time consuming and require a lot of dedication.

Some of the options for managing Bobby's episodes of self-harm include medications. There is no medication that stops self-harm itself but there are medications that can help manage mental health conditions that might increase the chances of harming oneself. For example, antidepressants can be prescribed to manage depression.

Another option is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can help Bobby with several things, depending on the form of psychotherapy employed:

  • How to identify negative self-beliefs and replace them with positive ones. By extension, how to build up his self-esteem.
  • How to manage his emotions.
  • How to better deal with stress.
  • How to healthily address any issues that might be leading to self-harm.
  • How to examine his past to get to the root of the problem.
  • How to improve his social skills in relationships.

In severe cases of self-harm, psychiatric hospitalization might be recommended. This will allow the child to be treated more intensively in a safer environment.

Lesson Summary

Self-harm should be taken very seriously but always empathetically so. There can be many reasons for why a child harms themselves, including:

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