Self Harm in Children and Adults: Why It Feels Like the Answer

Boy with bruised hands, representing self harm in children and adults.
Self-harm can be a difficult-to-understand phenomenon. But those with a history of it will tell you that, in the moment, it seems to make sense.

There is rarely a simple reason behind it. It is usually a combination of factors like past experiences, current stressors, difficult life circumstances, and poor self-concepts.

In this article, we’re going to explore self-harm, how people develop self-harming habits, and how to heal from this dangerous impulse.


The Reported Reasons for Self Harm

In young teens, and less commonly (but still notably) older adults, self-harm is committed in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. 

Research shows that self-injury occurs in about 5% of adults in the United States. Prevalence is higher among adolescents, with about 17% of teens reporting some form of self-injury. Shame around self-harm leads to underreporting, so these numbers are likely higher.

The most common modes of self-harm are…

  • Skin cutting
  • Head banging or hitting.
  • Using a heated object to burn one’s skin.

Here is a list of potential motives for self-harm:

  • A desire to keep loved ones concerned, such as in those who struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder.
  • Past emotional trauma manifesting in adulthood.
  • A distraction or mode of coping with stressful life events.
  • Something that occurs in breaks from reality, as in moments of psychosis.
  • Self-punishment that results from perfectionism or repressed anger.

According to Mental Health America:

People who self-injure commonly report they feel empty inside, over or under stimulated, unable to express their feelings, lonely, not understood by others, and/or fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities. Self-injury is their way to cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings and is generally not a suicide attempt.”

This does not imply that a self-harming individual is not thinking of suicide or that they are not at risk. It just means that, paradoxically, self-harm is often a mode of self-regulation and not self-destruction. And in the most severe cases, self-harm can be unintentionally life-threatening. 

Due to fear of having to explain their feelings, those who self-harm may go to great lengths to cover their wounds, scars, and bruises. They might wear long sleeves and pants in warm weather. Or, they might make a habit of lying about the marks people notice. 

They’ll say, “I cut my arm at work”, or “I got bit by a dog”, or “I fell when I was hiking.”

So then, what is the underlying purpose of self-harm?


What Function Does Self-Harm Serve?

Imagine you’re feeling an enormous amount of inner turmoil on a daily basis. 

No one knows how much you’re suffering, and you don’t let on that anything is wrong because you feel ashamed of your pain, or you don’t want people to see you as weak, or you don’t know how to properly express what you need.

Or maybe you don’t know how to process events from your past. Maybe there are traumatic events that you still don’t know how to get beyond, or you don’t know how to deal with the problems you’re currently facing.

This tension builds, and you have to deal with it on top of all other life stressors as a working adult or growing teen.

Eventually, if you don’t express your pain, that pent-up negative energy simply has nowhere else to go.

In an attempt to control your life and your feelings, you choose self-harm. It serves as a relief valve from feelings of helplessness. It’s a way to make a difference in some form. It’s as if to say, “I can’t solve these problems, but I can take them out on myself.”

The thinking is that self-harm is either A. Justified (I deserve this), or B. The only way you can release your pain (I can’t tell anyone and this is all I can do).

When these feelings arise, it starts to feel like self-harm is the sensible thing to do. 

The key to recovery is recognizing how these behaviors have come to serve you (in a maladaptive way) and discovering new ways to process your pain through healthier means.


Recovering From Self-harm

Self-harm recovery is possible, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, or how deeply rooted it has become in your life.

In essence, it’s about exploring the source of your self-harm, examining what it does for you, learning to recognize triggers, and working to alleviate the pain behind it.

Here are the primary modes of recovery…

One on One Therapy: This is expressing the pain behind your self-harming behaviors to someone who will listen. This may help alleviate the burden of keeping those reasons to yourself.

Also, a therapist will help you identify which people, situations, and past memories activate your desire to self-harm, so you can learn to recognize them in the future.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive/behavioral therapy helps individuals recognize their specific self-harming thoughts and impulses so that they can manage them in the moment.

CBT can be your biggest mental tool for identifying and reorienting yourself away from self-harming behaviors and replacing them with healthy behaviors. You learn to challenge your self-harming thoughts and test them against reality. 

CBT also involves changing personal narratives. Instead of thinking, “I’m weak for harming myself,” you can think “Self-harm was the best I could do at the time. I can do better now.”

Self-Harm Redirecting: Early on, the best solution to dealing with feelings of self-harm may be to redirect your impulses into safer activities.

For example, when you feel the desire to self-harm, you can decide to…

  • Put your body through strenuous exercise.
  • Squeeze ice cubes.
  • Take a cold shower.
  • Yell into a pillow.
  • Punch a heavy bag.

These self-harm alternatives can alleviate your impulses without doing serious damage to your body.


There Is a World Beyond Self Harm and Self Hatred

The more you explore your past and the mindsets that cause you to be violent toward yourself, the more respect you’ll gain for yourself and your body. You can come to see yourself as someone you would never harm for any reason, like a loved one.

It might be a long road, but developing that kind of self-compassion is essential in any psychological recovery.

Be gentle with yourself, learn to recognize your reasons, and you can move beyond the desire to self-harm.