Self-harm: Why does my daughter do it and what can I do to help?

Self-harm: Why does my daughter do it and what can I do to help?


Me: Why do you think that you self-harm?


Student: “I like it.” “It helps me feel better.” “It makes me numb.” “It helps me to feel something.” “I use it to punish myself.” “I use it to punish others.”  “It helps me understand my pain by putting it into something physical.” “It is something that I can be good at.”  “It makes me feel tough.” “It makes others notice me which proves to me that I am valuable.” “It distracts me.” “There aren’t words strong enough to match what I am feeling but cutting can show what I am feeling and so I don’t need words.”  “My friends do it and so I need to also.” “It helps me know that I am alive.” “It gives meaning to what I am feeling inside.”  “It just feels good.”  “It gives me something to talk about instead of my emotions.” “I can make my parents mad by cutting and then refusing their help or telling them I didn’t when they know that I did.” “It is cool.”  “It gives me something to hide and control.” “I want to have scars.”  “It proves to people that I am hurting a lot.”  “It keeps me from killing myself.”  “It is like I am wearing shoes that are painfully tight and I just can’t take them off. Cutting is like allowing me to take the shoes off.” “It helps me focus.”  “It lets me zone out and disassociate.” “I don’t know why I do it….I just do….and I don’t want to stop.”


Many of the students we work with at New Haven have a history of self-harming and, as noted in the above paragraph, their reasons for this are varied and complex. Unfortunately, the practice of self -harm is becoming more and more common among today’s teens.  For many of these teens it can become a strongly addictive, unhealthy way for them to deal with their emotional pain.


Self-harm can be carried out in many ways.  The most common self-harm behaviors we see atNew Haveninclude cutting, burning, and bruising.  In addition, some kids will starve themselves or ingest chemicals as a way to create physical illness and pain.  Self-harm in itself is generally not about suicide, and for most people is not intended as a way to kill oneself.  Most frequently, self-harm is a way for someone to discharge emotional discomfort that she doesn’t know how to manage in other ways. It is a very powerful force and it can be incredibly addicting and difficult to stop.


When trying to help a student who self-harms, I find it most effective to try to understand the role that the self-harm is playing in her life.  I often ask myself, is it a language through which the student can communicate her needs to others? Is it a way a student can turn on or off her feelings? Is it a way for a student to feel important, noticed, and unique within her family or peer group? Is it a way to self-punish and make up for feelings of worthlessness or self-hate?  Once we can identify the needs that the self-harm is filling, we can work on finding other, more effective ways of getting those same needs met.


In addition to finding out the role the self-harm is filling, it is important to help the student understand how her actions of self-harm will negatively affect her life in the future. I try to help the student see that the negative effects of self-harming will eventually outweigh its benefits even if it doesn’t feel that way for them right now.  I also try to teach her about how self-harm will damage the current and future relationships in her life.  In my opinion, it is impossible to actively self-harm while also maintaining healthy, balanced relationships.  Positive relationships need to be based on openness, trust, and honesty.  Ongoing self-harm creates relationships based on distrust, co-dependency, and egg-shell walking.


Once a student sees the need and has the desire to stop her self-harm behaviors, it is important to help her learn some tools she can use to break these difficult patterns. I try to teach the student that just because she experiences strong urges to self-harm at any particular moment doesn’t mean that she “needs” to self-harm to relieve the urge. She has a choice whether or not to engage in that behavior. I want to empower her to see her self-harm urges as an annoying “person” in her head that is just trying to talk her into self-harming.  She doesn’t have to listen to it and she can find other ways to manage the feelings such as talking with a friend, going for a walk, playing with an animal, practicing an instrument, etc. The discomfort of resisting the urge to self-harm won’t last forever and she can learn to tolerate it and let it run its course.  Additionally, I encourage the student to pick something positive in her life that she can immerse herself in, such as a hobby or volunteer work.  Self-harm has most likely filled a big part of her life and she will need something else to put in its place.  Instead of focusing on not doing something (self-harming), she can focus on doing something new (a hobby or volunteer work). Lastly, I always want to let my students know that if she has a “lapse” in a behavior it doesn’t mean that she is a failure and should give up.  Many girls who self-harm tend to see things as “all or nothing” and this can cause them to want to give up if they make a mistake.


Although it is a difficult behavior to deal with, self-harm can be understood and moved away from. Recovery is possible.  Never give up!


By, Karolee Koller