Most people wonder why anyone would want to engage in self harm. Whether someone scratches, cuts, or burns their body, these actions all seem like things we should avoid.

What many people don’t understand is that self harm behavior, in some ways, can provide relief, but at a very serious mental, emotional, and physical cost. While scratching, cutting, burning all seem like things to be avoided, in reality, these forms of self harm can really feel good to certain individuals.

For example, babies will bang their heads when frustrated, in pain, or angry. We’ve probably all seen it happen, but did you know that the pain from this can actually release “feel good” chemicals in the body?

What might seem like uncontrolled antics is actually a way for the baby to cope. Usually, this type of behavior will stop by age three or four. But it’s obvious that if this behavior were to persist then the child would need to see a medical health care professional to be evaluated.

In some cases, children and teens may scratch themselves in moments of frustration and anger. Overtime, this behavior can become associated with feeling better and self-punishment. There are a lot of reasons why a child might feel the need to act out like this, so it’s vital to watch out for signs of self harm in children. If you spot it early, you can help teach them another way to cope.

A Story

When Brandi was a baby, she would regularly bang her head in frustration and anger. Her mother was baffled because her first child never acted out like this. She did her best to learn what was going on but eventually decided to wait it out. As a preteen, Brandi was still banging her head. She would slam her door in anger and hit her head on the wall.

Eventually, Brandi started to exercise in order to release her pent up energy. Brandi’s mom was thrilled with the growth she saw in her. Until one day, her mom went into Brandi’s room to find her headboard destroyed by a knife.

Rather than confront it, she decided to keep an eye on her further. Over time, Brandi moved past her destructive habits and can now handle her feelings appropriately. For the most part, she is calm and, even in moments of frustration, doesn’t destroy things. Although she may still hit herself upside the head occasionally.

Reacting to Self Harm

Responding to self harm, such as head banging or scratching, needs to be done carefully.

  • If a child feels it is the only way to get noticed, they may do it more.
  • An intense reaction may scare the child.
  • Remaining non-judgmental and calm can help soothe the child.
  • Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Make sure they know that you are there to talk whenever they need you.
  • Try to build their self-esteem. Don’t ignore the problem.
  • Help them find new ways to cope, like communicating their feelings

Be aware that a child, teen, or adult might like to talk about the self-harming action more than talk about what they are really feeling. It is not uncommon for the person to not know the real reason behind their anxiety. If this is the case, then therapy might be the best option. A professional therapist can help someone understand what they are really feeling.

The reason someone chooses self harm is that they feel instant relief from ‘bad feelings,’ although the relief doesn’t last and is often replaced with guilt. And this is why the cycle continues.

Karen Contero, the author of Bodily Harm, states, “Self-harm typically starts at about age 14. But in recent years, we’ve been seeing kids as young as 11 or 12.

As more and more kids become aware of it, more kids are trying it.” She later explains that the behavior can continue into the thirties. “People keep doing it for years and years, and don’t really know how to quit.”

The knowledge that self harm can be addictive is an important part of real change.

A Story

Jansen bit his cheek. Sometimes biting it was the only thing that could stop him from screaming. At the age of 14, almost anything from mean teachers to annoying siblings could set him off.

Deep down he was sad. Whenever he tried to tell someone about it, he felt even more alone and not heard. It seemed no one could understand how deeply he felt about things in life. He was depressed but didn’t understand that. To him, it was simply normal life

For Jansen, biting his cheek became a habit, one that made him feel better and reminded him he was alive. Soon enough, when things got more difficult, he started scratching his body. In a fit of anger, remembering how his brother mocked him, he would scratch. He was especially sad and mad at home where he hoped to find real acceptance and love.

In class, he became the clown and star student. His grades were great, and teachers were surprised to find that he didn’t know how to cope with his feelings. Every year, self-harm was covered in health class and, while most kids dreamed of recess, Jansen imagined what the pain would feel like. Over time, he started experimenting. A little jab from a needle didn’t really hurt. Actually watching the small drops of blood gather made him feel strong.

He started to let the anger move from his mind to his body. He knew it didn’t make sense to watch himself bleed, but it helped break the numbness, and soon he was using blades.

At college, Jansen felt both liberated and afraid. His high expectations to perform caused him great anxiety. Some days, cutting seemed like his only choice. But then he fell in love and everything was cured, for a time.

Depression cannot simply be solved by positive thinking. His ineffective coping skills, cutting and biting, were not helping, and he needed to learn new, better coping mechanisms. While love seemed to cure him at first, normal relational conflict ensued and without healthy ways to handle his feelings, he continued to act out. His methods could not help him socially or relationally. When they finally broke up, he went right back to his old habits.

Eventually, shame and guilt over came him. Jansen didn’t want to live like this and saw he needed help. He had been to therapy before, but now this was his decision. He wanted to understand what was going on and how he could change.

After much effort and energy establishing new patterns in his life, he now lets himself cry and speaks his mind when he is sad. Sometimes he might bite his cheek, but he doesn’t cut himself.

Jansen is still building his self-esteem and social skills; these will be lifelong pursuits. But he has found his voice when he is feeling overwhelmed. One of the most helpful tools he has is finding what sets him off. When he knows what makes him upset, he can avoid those situations or prepare himself accordingly. And even when he is caught off guard, he copes by expressing his feelings about the situation.

Forms of Self Harm

Self injury usually takes place in private and is characterized by ritualistic and controlled behavior often resulting in a pattern on the skin.

Examples of self harm include:

  • Cutting (cuts or severe scratches with a sharp object)
  • Scratching
  • Burning (with matches, lighters, or burning metal)
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Punching or hitting
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Pulling out hair
  • Persistently picking at or interfering with wound healing

The most common forms of self injury are:

Cutting, making up seventy to ninety percent of all reported cases.

Head banging (or hitting) making up between twenty to forty-four percent of self-inflicted injuries.

Burning makes up about fifteen to thirty percent of self-harm.

Why People Self Harm

  • To alleviate boredom
  • It helps them feel better; releasing mental anguish
  • It is calming
  • It can numb all your feelings
  • It’s addictive
  • It’s empowering
  • To fit in (especially within teen Goth environments)
  • To punish themselves
  • It expresses feelings a person cannot verbalize
  • They feel empty inside
  • They feel lonely, fearful, or misunderstood.
  • They loathe or hate themselves
  • They don’t know how to regulate or understand emotions
  • They panic or feel uncontrollable anger
  • It helps them to feel something.

Several sites, including YouTube, glorify cutting. Unfortunately, youth are gullible making sites like this enticing. They will share stories and boast about their scars. Some even write poetry about the topic trying to normalize the behavior, and others claim writing about it is a way to get away from the behavior.

Despite these efforts to normalize it, self-mutilation remains unhealthy and reveals a person’s mental and emotional state. While a very small percentage of young people actually practice this behavior, adults need to be aware of it to help guide and protect their children.

How Common is Self Harm?

Even though this self harm has become rather well known, it is actually very rare. Only about 4% of adults have or will engage in it. Teenagers are at a much higher risk, although most will grow out of it, 17%-35% will practice this behavior. Getting professional help is one of the main ways to help teens dealing with this.

In order to change, people dealing with this issue need to find new skills to cope, which will mean sharing their feelings and acknowledging their self-destructive behavior, deciding they want to change.

Risk Factors

Age: Age is a major factor, with teens at the highest risk.

Having Friends Who Self Harm: If you are surrounded by people who participate in this behavior, you will be at a higher risk because it appears like normal behavior.

Life Issues: Social and family environments affect a person’s mental state and lack of coping skills. Someone dealing with difficult issues, such as their sexual identity or persistent loneliness, may turn to self-harm.

Mental Health Issues: Self-harming persons tend to be more self-critical and struggle to solve problems.

Diagnosing Self Harm

When the behavior comes to light, the negative effects are self-evident. Whether or not it is a serious mental condition will require the input of a mental health professional. Self-injury can be a symptom of a different mental illness. Note that piercings, tattoos, picking at scabs, and biting your nails do not qualify as symptoms, but can be related behavior.

Excessive Alcohol or Drug Use

There is also an increased risk of using brain-altering substances for those inclined to self-harm.

Self Injury and Suicide

Self-mutilation does not necessarily lead to suicide. Most people dealing with this are not suicidal and are trying to hide their behavior, sometimes going to great lengths to not reveal their scars. That being said, some cutters are deeply depressed.

This can lead to someone taking suicidal action over time, sometimes even because of their cycle of cutting and shame. Other times, the cutter may just cut too deep accidentally resulting in death. If anyone you or anyone you know is considering suicide, seek immediate help. Below is the national suicide hotline.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

Call 1-800-273-8255


Those dealing with cutting or burning can experience a great burden of guilt, which is difficult to overcome. Others may face infections, permanent scarring, or disfigurement. Finally, there is a risk of death inherent in cutting. These behaviors will not relieve underlying disorders or issues, and often make them worse.

If you see something you suspect might be self harm, then it is best to say something. It is better to check if something is wrong than do nothing while someone you love destroys their body.

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