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Understanding Self-Injury in Troubled Teens

Ginny Schneider, LMSW

An increasing number of adolescents, particularly females, secretly cut, scratch or burn their skin in an attempt to feel better. They damage their skin purposely and voluntarily as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions they simply cannot verbalize. This behavior is referred to as cutting, which falls under the larger umbrella of self-injury or self-harm, and has also been called self-mutilation. Although these adolescents are causing bodily harm to themselves, they typically do not want to die.

Self-injury is shocking and confusing to outside observers. Parents who discover their child is repeatedly and deliberately hurting his or her own body are usually alarmed and frightened. Most adolescents attempt to hide their behavior from their family members and parents are often completely unaware of it, even when the teen is doing it at home - in the very home they share.

What is self-injury?
Self-injury or self-harm is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's not meant as a suicide attempt and isn't part of a socially acceptable cultural or artistic expression or ritual, such as tattooing. Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy effort to cope with overwhelming negative emotions, such as intense anger, tension and frustration (Mayo Clinic, 2008).

Self-injury can be broken down into three categories:

  • Superficial/Moderate. The most common form of self-injury and the focus of this article, it involves superficial to moderate lacerations (cutting) or burns to one's skin.


  • Stereotypic. Repetitive, rhythmic self-injuries (e.g. head banging) often seen in autism or mental retardation.


  • Major. An extremely rare form of self-injury involving the severing of limbs and genitals, most associated with psychotic disorders.

Methods of self-injury
One of the most common methods of self-injury is cutting, which involves making cuts or scratches on your body with a sharp object. But there are many other forms of self-harm, including burning, poisoning, overdosing, carving words or symbols on the skin, hitting or punching, breaking bones, pinching, biting, pulling out hair (trichotillomania)
and interfering with wound healing (picking at scabs).... More>>

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