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Understanding Why Children Self-Injure

Parent talking with their child

One of the most shocking things for any parent to discover is that their child is engaging in self-injury. Parents always want to protect their children from harm, but how do you protect your child from harm that is being self-inflicted? An important first step to take after processing the initial shock is to remain calm and gain a better understanding of self-injury and the motivation behind it.

According to Bridget Barnes, Boys Town Common Sense Parenting® expert, self-injury is defined as deliberately inflicting pain or damage on your own body. “Self-injury includes cutting, burning or scratching one's skin or causing internal injury by consuming toxins, drugs or alcohol," said Barnes. “Even unsafe sex can be considered self-injury."

It's important to understand that self-injury in children and adolescents is the result of poor coping skills and the inability to manage, regulate or understand their emotions. Kids who just don't know how to cope in a healthy way may turn to self-injury as a way of dealing with their feelings by taking it out on themselves in a physical way. Bullying, for example, is a leading cause of self-injury as it results in self-doubt or hatred. Other self-injury triggers include past trauma, ongoing abuse, loss of a loved one or involvement in a toxic relationship.

Boys Town deals with victims of self-injury every day and recommends that parents be proactive in helping their children to avoid this behavior. These guidelines can provide a helpful start:

T  -  Teach – Be proactive and teach children healthy ways to cope with stress and self-doubt.
I   -  Identify – Be diligent in identifying early warning signs.
MMonitor – Always monitor your child's ability to manage emotions.
E  -  Encourage– Encourage children to practice self-care on a daily basis.

Parents must be vigilant in watching for the signs that may indicate a child is engaging in self-injury. These red flags include:

  • Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises or burns.
  • Bloodstains on clothing, towels or bedding.
  • The presence of sharp objects or cutting instruments in the child's belongings.
  • Covering up by wearing long sleeves and long pants even in warm weather to hide injuries.
  • Keeping to themselves often in their bedroom or bathroom.
  • Isolation and irritability.​

If a parent should notice any of these warning signs, it is imperative that they take immediate and purposeful action by approaching the child before bigger issues arise. “Parents need to calmly and considerately approach these situations with empathy and a lack of judgment," said Barnes.

“Kids need the help of their parents to understand why they are engaging in self-injury and help them to get the help they need. If parents don't feel comfortable or lack the skills to address the issue, or if the behavior continues despite ongoing conversations, parents should immediately seek professional help for their child."

Boys Town offers valuable resources for children and families facing issues of self-injury, including:

  • The Boys Town National Hotline (800-448-3000) is a 24-hour crisis line, staffed by specially trained Crisis Counse​lors who listen, provide support, assess safety issues and offer additional resources when needed. 
  • Your Life Your Voice is a website for teens that offers ways for them to reach out for support; it also provides tips and tools to assist in dealing with the everyday issues that teens face. Text VOICE to 20121 or visit

For additional resources related to the behavior of children, visit Boys Town: Saving Children, Healing Families, Parenting Tips | Search