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Understanding and Treating Self-Injurious Behaviors in Children and Adolescents

Self-injurious behaviors in children and adolescents can be distressing and challenging for both the individuals experiencing them and their loved ones. These behaviors, which involve deliberate self-harm or self-inflicted injury, are often a manifestation of underlying emotional pain and psychological distress. In this blog post, we will explore the causes and risk factors associated with self-injury, as well as effective treatment options to support young individuals in their journey towards healing and recovery.

Understanding Self-Injurious Behaviors: Self-injury refers to the intentional act of causing harm to oneself without suicidal intent. Common forms of self-injury in children and adolescents include cutting, scratching, burning, hitting, or hitting oneself against objects. It is essential to recognize that self-injury is not attention-seeking or manipulative behavior; rather, it serves as a coping mechanism to alleviate emotional pain or distress that the individual may find difficult to express or manage in healthier ways.

Causes and Risk Factors: Self-injurious behaviors can stem from a variety of factors, including:

  1. Emotional Distress: Children and adolescents who struggle with overwhelming emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, or frustration may resort to self-injury as a way to release or distract themselves from these intense feelings.

  2. Communication Difficulties: Some individuals may find it challenging to express their emotions verbally or fear judgment or rejection. Self-injury can become a non-verbal way of communicating their distress or seeking support.

  3. Trauma or Abuse: Experiencing traumatic events or abuse can significantly impact a young person's mental health, leading to self-injurious behaviors as a maladaptive coping mechanism.

  4. Mental Health Disorders: Self-injury is often associated with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, or eating disorders. These conditions can contribute to the development and maintenance of self-injurious behaviors.

  5. Peer Influence: Peer pressure, bullying, or social isolation can also contribute to self-injurious behaviors as young individuals attempt to cope with negative experiences or seek a sense of belonging.

Treatment Options: The treatment of self-injurious behaviors in children and adolescents requires a comprehensive and individualized approach. It is crucial to involve mental health professionals who specialize in working with young individuals. Here are some effective treatment options:

  1. Psychotherapy: a. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to self-injury. It also focuses on developing healthy coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills. b. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT combines individual therapy, group skills training, and phone coaching. It teaches emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness skills to address self-injury and associated challenges. c. Trauma-Focused Therapy: For individuals with a history of trauma, trauma-focused therapies, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), can help process traumatic experiences and reduce self-injurious behaviors.

  2. Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to target underlying mental health conditions that contribute to self-injury. Medication should always be prescribed and monitored by a qualified healthcare professional.

  3. Family Involvement and Support: Involving family members in the treatment process can provide crucial support and understanding for the child or adolescent. Family therapy can improve communication, strengthen relationships, and foster a supportive environment for recovery.

  4. Building Coping Skills: Teaching alternative coping mechanisms, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, expressive arts therapy, or physical exercise, can empower young individuals to manage their emotions and distress in healthier ways.

  5. Peer Support: Encouraging participation in support groups or peer networks can provide a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation. Sharing experiences and learning from others who have overcome self-injury can be empowering and inspiring.

Conclusion: Addressing self-injurious behaviors in children and adolescents requires a compassionate and multidimensional approach. By understanding the underlying causes, seeking professional help, and implementing evidence-based treatment options, young individuals can learn healthier coping strategies and find hope on their path to recovery. Remember, recovery takes time, patience, and support, but with the right interventions, it is possible to overcome self-injury and create a brighter future.

If you have a child or adolescent who is engaging in self-injurious behaviors (cutting, burning, participation in dangerous activities that will intentionally cause self-harm) please give us a call and schedule an assessment with one of our licensed and qualified mental health counselors at (256) 393-0705 or email us at In the case of an emergency, please call 911 or go directly to your nearest hospital. Please text 988 if you or a family member is experiencing a life threatening mental health crisis.

Sharika Pruitt, LPC-S, NCC

Executive Clinical Director

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