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Why Our Public Response to Kids Who Self Harm is So Wrong

Up to one half of adults have engaged in self-harming behaviors at some point in their life.


This result was found during an extensive study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) about ten years ago. Their study was headed by a medical doctor, two psychiatric professionals with doctorates, and a licensed clinical social worker. Their final numbers estimated that somewhere between one-third and one-half of all adults in the U.S. have engaged in self harm at some point in their lifetime, and that was ten years ago. I have no doubt the statistics are at least that high now.

(Study by NCBI can be found here)

If we really examine those numbers and apply them to the children who are growing up now, it’s easy to see what a MASSIVE issue self-harm is for them. It’s happening whether we catch them participating in it or not.

Self-harming behaviors could look like cutting their skin–which seems to be the most commonly thought of type–but it could also look like bruising, scratching, or burning their skin. How many kids did you know growing up who gave themselves eraser burns? Or who put safety pins through the top layer of skin on their hands? Or who carved on their skin with safety pins? Or who used sharp pencils, broken pieces of plastic, glass, or pens to dig into their skin? Or who sprayed cologne on their jeans and then lit it on fire to make everyone laugh?

Those are all forms of self harm, even if kids are just doing them to get attention.

Self-harm might not even involve the skin at all. There’s a common misconception that self-harmers are all skin cutters, but, really, anything a child does to intentionally hurt themselves is self-harm. It could be engaging in frequent fist-fighting in order to feel the physical pain of being hit. It could be getting so drunk they black out, weekend after weekend. It could be engaging in sexual behaviors to punish themselves, as opposed to engaging in sexual behaviors out of a real desire to.

Self-harm is so much bigger than most adults want to admit.

It’s the topic that’s rarely talked about, but frequently engaged in. Why do we respond like this?

I think a huge part of our avoidance of self-harm conversations comes from our own desire to hide our struggles with mental health. We don’t want to admit that we’ve engaged in self-harming behaviors as kids because we don’t want to be associated with “craziness.” We also don’t want to talk about why we self-harmed, where our pain came from, or how the self-harming was a coping skill. We feel like talking about it is the same as encouraging it.

This is so far from the truth.

Our extreme avoidance of this issue, as a culture, does nothing but cause us to react poorly when we find out a child in our own lives is hurting themselves.

Most commonly, parents react to this news by panicking. That panic leads to making decisions out of fear, which often ends up with kids being hospitalized. I am not a mental health professional (disclaimer), but as a foster mom who’s had kids who self-harmed, a group home parent who’s had teens who self-harmed, and an adult who self-harmed as an adolescent, I can assure you that SELF-HARMING IS NOT EQUIVALENT TO NEEDING HOSPITALIZATION.

Let me say that one more time. Self-harming is not equivalent to needing hospitalization.

When we see our children hurting themselves, we get scared that they’ll take their own lives. Our first instinct is to wrap them up in a bubble to save them from themselves, and do whatever it takes to keep them alive.

The thing is, when our only goal is to keep a person alive, we’re not really addressing the issues that caused the self harm in the first place. We’re just forcing them to survive without helping them to reach a quality of life that will cause them to WANT to live.

There are so many kids who self-harm but do not actually want to end their lives. They just don’t know how else to cope with their pain.

Reported reasons for self-harm are most often:

– Thinking the pain will be released when something inside them is released (like blood)
– Feeling like the harming behavior will pop the pressure valve inside of them
– Wanting to feel anything, even if its pain, when all they’ve felt recently is emptiness
– Needing to reach out for help but not knowing how to express it with words

Imagine if we addressed those issues instead of assuming the child wants to die. There’s a big difference between hurting yourself because you feel overwhelming pain and wanting to die because you feel overwhelming pain. There’s also a big difference between suicidal ideation and suicidal planning.

Licensed therapists know these differences and are trained to help make decisions about when a child truly needs hospitalization. So many adults jump straight to the idea of hospitalization when self harm is mentioned, particularly when its in regards to their own children, simply because they don’t understand the whole situation.

I get it. It’s really scary to know our kids are hurting themselves or want to. It makes us so terrified to lose them. But when our response to their honesty is putting them in a place that will make them feel like they’re in prison, we’re not actually helping them.

We’re making them feel like they’ve done something wrong, in the name of keeping them alive longer.

Our job as parents and educators isn’t JUST to keep kids alive. It’s to make sure they’re seen, heard, learning, growing, understanding, and healthy. It’s our job to teach and support them – not condemn them or contain them for the sake of safety.

Psychiatric units are important and necessary in some situations. I don’t want anyone to interpret this as me saying they’re not vital. They are.

However, they’re over-utilized and under-studied. Most people don’t even know what it’s like to be in a psychiatric facility. Being there means not being able to wear any of your own clothes. It means no shoe laces, no drawstrings, no towels, no belts, and no pencils.

NO PENCILS, guys. If you want to journal (which is a healthy coping skill), you have to use crayons.

It also means you don’t get doors on your bathroom stalls or showers. You don’t get to pee by yourself. You don’t get to shave your legs or your face or your armpits. You don’t get to have more than a pump of shampoo at a time, and you definitely don’t get to have contact anyone you know.

Most of the time, you don’t even get fresh air everyday.

The entire goal is for these facilities is to keep people alive. They aren’t necessarily concerned with long-term health because they aren’t equipped for it.

Yes, they offer meetings with psychiatrists, talks with therapists, evaluations by medical doctors, and group therapy, but none of it actually feels helpful. Everyone else who’s there is just as miserable as you are, and everyone is trying to get out. It’s not a community of healing people, no matter how often the doctors inside try to make you feel that way.

And do you know what happens if you spend too much time by yourself in a psychiatric facility? Or what happens if the staff doesn’t think you’re socializing enough? They extend your stay because you’re not engaging in healthy practices.

That’s right. You don’t even get to choose how long you stay. If you happen to become miserable while you’re there (which would be SHOCKING, considering how lavish the place is), then you’ll get yourself stuck there even longer. It’s a vicious cycle that results in depressed people becoming more depressed.

The mental healthcare system in the United States is lacking in so many ways, and the people who are least educated about it have so much power in making decisions about it when it comes to children.

Let’s stop making kids feel freakish or ashamed for hurting themselves and start helping them that we understand what they’re going through because we’ve been there.

Let’s start offering our children higher qualities of life and teaching them better coping skills instead of asking them to stop being depressed in a world that isn’t accommodating to peaceful living.

Let’s ask kids what they really need instead of telling them where to go and what to do.

Let’s make their lives worth living instead of being panicked that they don’t think it is.

Why Our Public Response to Kids Who Self Harm is So Wrong

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2020). Why Our Public Response to Kids Who Self Harm is So Wrong. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Jan 2020
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