Why Do Kids Self Harm and What is the Payoff?

The term ‘self harm’ has many definitions. It is usually defined as the intentional causing of injury to oneself. Self harm includes cutting, hitting or burning oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations.

So what makes our kids want to self harm? I used to think the driving cause was self loathing and the motivation – attention seeking. But it is usually a way of coping with big emotions, and is often done in secrecy, with every effort made to try and hide the behaviour. And the pay off? Short term release from suffocating emotions in most cases.

self harm

My daughter, Jessie, started cutting around the age of 12. It’s such a frightening thing as a mum being confronted with self inflicted bloodied arms needing cleaning and care. Worse when it started being hidden from me, and I’d have the school call me to come and pick her up if she’d taken her jumper off and been reported.

School rules are that all cuts must be covered to discourage other girls copying. Self harm is very much a taboo subject in the school environment. I ended up leaving bandages and tubigrip with the year advisor so she could stay at school. Jessie hated the whole thing, and I agree with her – she felt the bandages only made it more obvious and girls would ask her what happened. I do understand the school’s theory as well, and I don’t think there’s a perfect solution.

I would search every inch of Jessie’s room looking for sharps. She was not allowed scissors, not even at school. The teachers were informed and would lend her scissors if she needed them. I had to take the protractor out of her geometry kit. All my knives and all sharp or pointy kitchen utensils had to be hidden away. She would always find something though, it’s amazing how resourceful she can be. One of her favourites was pulling pencil sharpeners apart and using the blade. This one took me a while to work out as they can be put back together. Her hiding places became more of a challenge to find.

Initially she would become violent towards me and out of control. Police would come, and even if  Jessie settled, they would call an ambulance because of her wounds. She would be treated without empathy by the staff in ER. One time we were sent home without a nurse even looking at her cuts, let alone cleaning down her arm. I was disgusted, and made a formal complaint, and that didn’t ever happen again.

It then became a silent battle of wills I guess you could call it. I would search her room and confiscate anything sharp I found or any new pencil sharpeners. She wouldn’t say anything – so no Police enforced trips to hospital – she would just find or make new tools.

Jessie’s counsellor from Child and Youth Mental Health Services (CYMHS) suggested she wear an elastic band around her wrist, and flick it again her skin when she needed to. Another suggestion was ice cubes on the skin. Neither of these things gave Jessie the outlet she needed. As it was explained to me, there is actually a physiological reaction that occurs with self-harm, that briefly increases serotonin levels, giving a feeling of release.

Self harm behaviours have been found to be more prevalent in teenagers who have excessively strong emotions and trouble regulating those emotions and impulse control. Lots of articles I’ve read also state that it is believed that borderline personality disorders are caused by the inability to manage emotions.

self harm

These kids are hurting and overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings. With Jessie we started off with a sealed jar of water with lots of glitter in it – her Glitter Jar. When she felt herself becoming really anxious or uptight, she would shake the jar and say to me “my glitter is all over the place” before storming off. I was always amazed the Glitter Jar didn’t ever get smashed along with so many other things. Little tornado she can be! Get in her way and she’ll take you down! Shows how much she appreciated having it, and what an important communication tool it was for her.

That then progressed to using emotion cards to identify her emotion. (Bear cards are awesome if you can find them. Each card is a bear showing a different feeling, and the kids can choose a card whenever they feel the need to.) Giving her language helped diffuse the extremity of the feeling and make the feeling more manageable. We were also given a card with The Four Rooms of Change. It’s kept on the fridge, and we both have our own magnet and use it to let each know what sort of mood we’re in.

self harm


REACHOUT.com Australia website provides useful information and links to related articles. The website also gives details for eheadspace, Kids Helpline and Lifeline. They can be contacted by phone or via online  chat.






2 thoughts on “Why Do Kids Self Harm and What is the Payoff?

Add yours

  1. An excellent post Kat, one quite close to my heart. I was an active self-harmer [cutter/dangerous situations] for a good thirty years of my life. It is STILL a taboo subject steeped in controversy by a fear ridden society who wish not to discuss these issues. it is still surrounded in stigma. people don’t wish to know about these things. but they do need to be discussed as do all Taboo/Stigma subjects.


    1. Thank you so much. I relate to the cutting and dangerous situations from my past too. I guess it helped me in understanding what Jessie was going through. I completely agree, it’s still very much a taboo subject, which only adds to the guilt, shame and self judgement unfortunately. Topics only lose that taboo tag when they are discussed openly, but I think it’s a very confronting and misunderstood subject for most.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: