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What is Self-Harm or Self-Injury?

Self-harm or self-injury is the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue resulting in immediate damage without suicidal intent and for purposes not culturally sanctioned.

Self-injury can include a variety of behaviors but is most commonly associated with:

  • intentional carving or cutting of the skin

  • subdermal tissue scratching

  • burning oneself

  • banging or punching objects or oneself with the intention of hurting oneself

  • embedding objects under the skin

Self-injury can be and is performed on any part of the body, but most often occurs on the hands, wrists, stomach, and thighs.

Self-injury is sometimes used as a way of coping with negative events and feelings. It is often used as a result of not having learned how to identify or express difficult feelings in a more healthy way.

Cited from Cornell University College of Human Ecology from

How does it differ from suicidal behaviors?

There are important distinctions between those attempting suicide and those who practice self-injury behaviors in order to cope with overwhelming negative feelings or no feeling at all (dissociation). Perhaps one of the most paradoxical features of self-injury is that most of those who practice self-injury report doing so as a means of relieving pain or of feeling something in the presence of nothing.

Cited from Cornell University College of Human Ecology

How do I know if my child is self-harming?

Information for Parents, "What you need to know about self-injuring"

Many adolescents who self-injure do so in secrecy and this secrecy is often the clearest red flag that something is wrong. Although it is normal for adolescents to pull away from parents during times of high involvement with friends or stress, it is not normal for adolescents to be withdrawn, physically and emotionally, for long periods of time. It is also important to note that not all people who self-injure become distant and withdrawn — youth who put on a happy face, even when they do not feel happy, may also be at risk for self-injury or other negative coping behaviors.

Some other signs include:

  • Cut or burn marks on arms, legs, abdomen

  • Discovery of hidden razors, knives, other sharp objects and rubber bands (which may be used to increase blood flow or numb the area)

  • Spending long periods of time alone, particularly in the bathroom or bedroom

  • Wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather, such as long sleeves or pants in hot weather As a parent, you might suspect that your child is self-harming. If you are worried, keep an eye open for the following signs:

  • Unexplained cuts, burns, bite-marks, bruises or bald patches

cited from Information for parents: What you need to know about self-injury. The Fact Sheet Series, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Cornell University

What do I do now?

  • Keep open communication between you and your child and remember they may feel ashamed of their self-harm and find it very difficult to talk about. Here are some ways you could start the conversation

  • Together with your child, learn more about coping and stress management strategies (see below for more distraction and coping strategies)

  • Check out the book Healing Self Injury

  • Avoid asking your child a lot of questions at once

  • Keep an eye on your child but avoid 'policing' them because this can increase their risk of self-harming

  • Consider whether your child is self-harming in areas that can't be seen

  • Remember that self-harm is a coping mechanism. It is a symptom of an underlying problem

  • Talk to your child but try not to get into a hostile confrontation

  • Keep firm boundaries and don't be afraid of disciplining your child. It is helpful to keep a sense of normality and this will help your child feel secure and emotionally stable

  • If you feel confident, you can ask them whether removing whatever they are using to self-harm is likely to cause them to use something less sanitary to self-harm with, or whether it reduces temptation. This can be a difficult question to ask and if you are not confident to ask this seek professional advice

  • Seek professional help. Your child may need a risk assessment from a qualified mental health professional.

  • Discovering and responding to self-harm can be a traumatic experience - it's crucial that you seek support for yourself. It's natural to feel guilt, shame, anger, sadness, frustration, and despair - but it's not your fault.

cited from Young Minds


I want to stop self-injuring, but I still have urges. What can I do instead?

Finding new ways of coping with difficult feelings can help to suppress the urges that lead to self-injury and may help in the recovery process. Focusing on identifying feelings and challenging the thoughts that lead to self-injury can be helpful. Seeking outside professional assistance or engaging in individual therapy may be a good idea as well.

Distract yourself or use a substitution behavior. Many report delaying an urge to self-injure by several minutes can be enough to make the urge fade away. One way to increase the chances of a distraction or substitution helping calm the urge to self-injure is to match what you do to how you are feeling at the moment. Stopping is easier if you can find other ways of expressing or coping with your feelings.

See the following examples as alternatives (Click here for a more in-depth list)

  • Feeling Angry

    • Slash and empty plastic soda bottle or piece of heavy cardboard

    • Squeeze ice

    • Do something that will give you a sharp sensation, like eating lemon

    • Flatten aluminum cans for recycling, seeing how fast you can go

    • Hit a punching bag

    • Pick up a stick and hit a tree

    • Use a pillow to hit a wall, pillow-fight style

  • Feeling sad or depressed

    • Do something slow and soothing

    • Take a hot bath with bath oil or bubbles

    • Curl up under a comforter with hot cocoa and a good book

    • Do something nice for someone else

    • Hug a loved one or stuffed animal

    • Play with a pet

    • Make a list of things that make you happy

  • Craving Sensation/Feeling empty or unreal

    • List the many uses for random object (for example, what are all the things you can do with a twist tie?)

    • Interact with other people

    • Put a finger into a frozen food (like ice cream)

    • Take a cold bath

    • Stomp your feet on the grund

    • Focus on how it feels to breathe

  • Wanting focus

    • Do a task that is exacting and requires focus and concentration

    • Eat a raisin mindfully. Notice how it looks and feels. Try to describe the texture. How does a raisin smell? Chew slowly, noticing how the texture and even the taste of the raisin change as you chew it

    • Pick a subject and research it on the internet

  • Feeling guilty or like a bad person

    • List as many good things about yourself as you can

    • Read something good that someone has written about you

    • Talk to someone that cares about you

    • Do something nice for someone else

  • Other General Distractions and Techniques

    • Reach out to Others

    • Express Yourself

    • Keep Busy

    • Do Something Mindful

    • Release Your Frustrations

SIOS (Self Injury Outreach & Support) click here for more information

Strategies for Parents

Coping strategies for those self-harming

Kilburn, E. & Whitlock, J.L. (2009). Distraction techniques and alternative coping strategies. The Practical Matters Series, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Cornell University. Ithaca, NY


This is a list of resources is for public knowledge, they are not endorsed or specifically recommended by the professional staff of the Franklin Community School Corporation.