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Self-harm in children means that they intentionally harm themselves through their behaviors in different ways. It is often a way for the child to deal with difficult emotions and is a cry for help. Here we look at what it is and what can be done about it.

What is self-harm in children?

Self-harm in children means that they intentionally harm themselves physically without the intention of committing suicide. It can manifest itself through actions such as cutting, burning, hitting themselves, picking at wounds, or pulling out hair. It can also be destructive behaviors such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs. It can also involve putting oneself in dangerous situations or sexual risk behaviors. This type of behavior is often a way for the child to deal with and express deep emotional pain, stress, anxiety, or frustration.

Self-harm is when someone inflicts physical harm on themselves, often without anyone else knowing. Self-harm is a behaviour that is often the expression of the person’s emotional distress.

Self-harm behavior acts as a maladaptive coping mechanism where the physical expression of pain is used to deflect or manage the internal psychological pain. It is important to understand that this behavior signals a need for help and support rather than dismissing it as attention seeking.

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Self-harm and neuropsychiatric problems

Self-harm can often be linked to neuropsychiatric problems in children and adolescents. This includes conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism but can also occur in other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression. Individuals with these diagnoses may experience heightened emotional sensitivity, impulse control problems, and difficulties in managing stress, which may lead them to use self-harm as a coping mechanism to manage their emotions or experience a temporary relief from psychological pain.

It is important to approach these behaviors with understanding and to seek professional help to address both the physical behavior and the underlying mental health conditions. Treating the neuropsychiatric issues can often reduce or eliminate the need for self-harm as a maladaptive coping strategy.


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Treatment for children with self-harm

The treatment of self-harm in children requires a multifaceted and tailored approach, centered around psychological support and sometimes medical intervention. A crucial component is psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address negative thought patterns and behaviors. This may also involve treating underlying trauma or mental health problems such as anxiety.

For children with other underlying neuropsychiatric conditions, drug treatment may be necessary as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. In addition, education for children and families about self-harm and access to support groups are important to build an understanding and network of support. A safe and supportive environment, along with close collaboration between the family and professionals, is fundamental to supporting the child’s recovery.



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12 frequently asked questions about self-harm in children

What is self-harm in children?

Self-harm in children means that they intentionally harm themselves physically without the intention of committing suicide.

How can self-harm manifest itself?

It can manifest itself through actions such as cutting, burning, hitting themselves, picking at wounds, or pulling out hair. It can also be destructive behaviors such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs. It can also involve putting themselves in dangerous situations or sexual risk behaviors.

Why do children engage in self-harm?

The behavior is often a way for the child to deal with and express deep emotional pain, stress, anxiety, or frustration. It acts as a maladaptive coping mechanism where the physical expression of pain is used to deflect or manage the inner psychological pain.

Is self-harm just a way to get attention?

No, it is important to understand that this behavior signals a need for help and support rather than dismissing it as attention seeking.

Is self-harm common in neuropsychiatric disorders?

Self-harm can often be linked to neuropsychiatric problems in children and adolescents. This includes conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism but can also occur in other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression.

Why do children and young people with neuropsychiatric problems often engage in self-harm?

Individuals with these diagnoses may experience heightened emotional sensitivity, impulse control problems, and difficulties in coping with stress, which may lead them to use self-harm as a coping mechanism to manage their emotions or experience temporary relief from psychological pain.

How can therapy help children and young people with self-harm?

The treatment of self-harm in children requires a multifaceted and tailored approach, centered around psychological support and sometimes medical intervention. It is possible to feel better.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to ill health.

What is a child psychologist?

A child psychologist is a licensed professional with knowledge and experience in working for the well-being and mental health of children and parents.

What does a child psychologist do?

Child psychologists offer therapy and counseling, but also work with families in parental support and the whole family when needed. They also work with schools to create good conditions for the child.

Can I see a child psychologist privately?

It is possible to see a child psychologist privately. At Lavendla we have several psychologists who have extensive experience of working with children and young people.

Where can I turn if I or my child needs help from a child psychologist?

Depending on how old your child is, you can turn to different services, mainly CAMHS or the HSE. For children under 6 years of age, the child health center can help, over 6 years of age you can seek help through your GP. If you are over 13 years old, you can go to a youth clinic or the school counselor. You can also contact child and adolescent psychiatry. At Lavendla we have experienced child psychologists who can also help.

How can treatment for self-harm in children work?

Treatment for self-harm in children requires an integrated and individualised approach that addresses both the immediate dangers of the behaviour and the underlying psychological causes. Here are some important aspects of treatment:

  1. Professional evaluation: The first step is a thorough psychological evaluation by a child psychiatry team to identify any underlying diagnoses or contributing factors to the self-harm behavior.
  2. Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in helping children develop healthier ways to deal with negative emotions and thought patterns.
  3. Family therapy: Including the family in the treatment process is important for creating a supportive home environment and addressing any family-related stressors.
  4. Education and support groups: Education and support groups on self-harm for both the child and the family can be helpful depending on the need.
  5. Medical treatment: In some cases, medication may be necessary to treat underlying psychiatric conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that may contribute to self-harm.
  6. Environmental adaptations: Creating a safe environment that minimises opportunities for self-harm and promotes healthy coping strategies is an important part of treatment.

It is important that parents and guardians work closely with professionals to create a coordinated and comprehensive treatment plan. Encouraging open communication and showing unconditional support for the child is crucial throughout the treatment process.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.