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How to Spot Symptoms of Self-Harm in Children and Youth

There are many misconceptions surrounding self-harming behaviors. Though not often talked about, self-harm is more common than many people realize. Mandy Fauble, PhD, executive director of Safe Harbor Behavioral Health of UPMC Hamot, shares several signs of self-harm that parents should know.

Safe Harbor Behavior Health of UPMC Hamot offers health care professionals and crisis services available to address your child’s needs quickly, confidentially, and safely. Reach them by phone at 814-456-2014.

Why Do Some Young People Harm Themselves?

Adults are often shaken and confused to learn that some young people choose to injure themselves. Parents are faced with questions like “What are self-harming behaviors?” and “Why does a child choose to self-harm?”

“Self-injury can take several forms, such as cutting, burning, eraser burns, hair pulling, and punching or hitting things,” explains Dr. Fauble. “The human body is wired to ease pain, releasing soothing hormone after an injury. Self-injury is very effective in distracting from emotional pain, and creating a more exhausted and calmer feeling (.”

Unfortunately, experts need more research to determine the cause of self-harm.

“Mental health concerns, lack of coping skills, and difficulty managing overwhelming emotions are all associated with non-suicidal self-injury. A childhood history of trauma and abuse is also linked to self-harm, but there can be many other contributing factors,” explains Dr. Fauble.

Self-Harm Warning Signs in Children and Teens

While there’s a common belief that self-harming is a “girl thing” Dr. Fauble reports that it is not true. “Boys also self-injure,” she says. “However, it tends to be more aggressive, like hitting themselves or punching things until their knuckles bleed.”

What self-harm warning signs should you look for? Dr. Fauble recommends parents become aware of the following indications of self-harm:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Wearing long sleeves (especially in hot weather)
  • Finding razors or lighters in odd areas where self-injury may be occurring
  • Making sure areas of the body are hidden

If you notice any of these self-harm warning signs, it’s critical to remain calm and have an open conversation with your child. “If you can be calm, it is more likely your child will accept help,” advises Dr. Fauble.

“Self-injury can be linked to attempted suicide, or accidental death, so it is important to ask young people if they are also experiencing thoughts of suicide, and to take steps if the self-injury requires medical attention or is extremely risky,” adds Dr. Fauble.

Additional Tips for Parents

“Following a child;s social media and peer groups is helpful, as young people might disclose thoughts of self-harm or behavior,” advises Dr. Fauble. “Parents may also want to reach out to their child’s school for support.” Plus, parents should take steps to decrease availability and access to common self-harming implements.

“Self-harming behavior is treatable and a mental health therapist and/or psychiatrist who is trained can help with these issues,” says Dr. Fauble.

With the right help and support, your child can learn to overcome self-harming behaviors.

Safe Harbor Behavior Health of UPMC Hamot (814-456-2014) has health care professionals and crisis services available to address your child’s needs quickly, confidentially, and safely.

To learn more about self-harm and mental-health services for children, call UPMC’s Safe Harbor Behavioral Health at 814-456-2014 and speak with a caring mental health expert today.


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