Self Injury

By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Self-injury is an expression of acute psychological distress. It is an act done to oneself, by oneself, with the intention of helping oneself rather than killing oneself. Paradoxically, damage is done to the body in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the mind. Self-Injury, also commonly known as self-harm; self-mutilation; self-abuse; and self inflicted violence, is defined as the deliberate harming or alteration of one's body tissue without the conscious intent to commit suicide. Self-injury cuts across the boundaries of race, gender, age, education, sexual preference, and socio-economic brackets.

The most common methods of self-injury are cutting with a razor blade or broken glass, scratching, picking a wound, burning skin, and pulling hair. Self-hitting and head-banging are usually associated with mentally delayed or autistic children. Excessive piercing or tattooing is not self-injury if the primary purpose is body decoration or to fit in with peers.

Self-injury typically begins during adolescence, peaks during the twenties and declines or disappears in the thirties. Though uncommon, children as young as preschool age have intentionally hurt themselves. Many self-injurers also have histories, or current problems, of substance abuse, eating disorders, and compulsions (obsessive/compulsive or compulsive alone). They often lack the ability and skills to regulate their moods by other methods. Many have a history of being abused (physically, sexually, and emotionally), with a large proportion of the abuse starting in childhood. Commonly, people who self-injure have a history of psychological treatment through admissions to psychiatric hospital and/or in seeking therapy. Some adolescents may self-mutilate to take risks, rebel, reject their parents' values, state their individuality or merely be accepted. Others, however, may injure themselves out of desperation or anger to seek attention, to show their hopelessness and worthlessness, or because they have suicidal thoughts. There also appears to be a significant relationship between self-injury and the lack of social-support systems.

If individuals who self-injure do not receive prompt professional attention, they may develop an addiction. Cutting or other self-injuries can be stopped, but the process usually takes a long time. A referral to a therapist who has expertise in this area typically needs to be made. Through therapy the self-injurers learn that is it okay to feel a variety of emotions and how to express them openly. A therapist teaches them alternative behaviors so that they can release their tension in harmless ways. Methods a therapist might share include relaxation and breathing techniques, meditation, exercise, art, writing, or singing. Support groups may also be beneficial. The self-injurer needs to understand the underlying motives for their behavior and take responsibility for, and control over, their actions.

What can parents and teachers do?

  • Do not be judgmental or critical towards the child.
  • Get the child professional help.
  • Come up with alternative ways of relieving stress in trying situations.
  • Be a positive role model, avoiding violent and unhealthy behaviors.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,