Information on Self Harm – A Silent Cry for Help

The act of deliberately injuring oneself is a puzzling (and for parents frightening) behavior to understand, and is known to be much more common than previously thought, especially among adolescents. Deliberate self-harm can involve cutting, burning, head-banging, hitting or other behaviors, and almost always occurs when people experience overwhelming distressing feelings. Repeated self-harm behaviors are often connected to a previous trauma (very often sexual abuse), bipolar disorder, or other serious emotion problems. For kids it is often a silent cry for help, a way of controlling their emotional pain. “Many are sensitive, perfectionists or overachievers and the self-injury begins as a defense against what’s going on in their family and in their lives. They have failed in one area of their life and this is a way to get control,” says Wendy Lader, Ph.D.

“Self-harm occurs among as many as 75% of individuals with borderline personality disorder” explains Milton Z. Brown, Ph.D, Associate Professor at Alliant University. “Many experts believe that personality disorders are much more effectively treated when a person is young before the problems become habitual and engrained. The most effective therapies for self-harm are problem-solving therapies, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), that aim to alleviate the sources of emotional distress.”

What to look for:

  • Unexplained cuts (small and linear) and scratches, especially when they appear regularly
  • Mood changes, out of control behavior, changes in relationships and school performance

What to do:

  • Let your kid know you are aware of this, that you are not going to punish them, but that you are concerned. Let them know you are going to get help together.


Article contributed by Milton Z. Brown, Ph.D.