The real story behind self-injury …
and what you can do to help.

Recent studies suggest that as many as 1 in 4 high school students engage in self-injury behavior during adolescence.

This behavior is often tied to complex emotional triggers and/or responses to various outside stimuli – and loved ones and others trying to help equally often misunderstand it.

More often than not, self-injuring behaviors (cutting, burning, head banging and other such actions) are thought to be early warning signs of suicidal behavior.

However; in most cases, that is too extreme a view of what’s really going on inside the minds of those involved in self-injury.

Non Suicidal Self Injury

Non Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) cases are far more prevalent than those intending to do fatal harm to themselves.  And these actions are often performed as a conditioned response to triggers in life.

Triggers such getting in trouble, failing a test, performing at a lower standard than expected of oneself all lead to the impression that self-punishment (injury) becomes an acceptable answer.

In many situations, adolescents report that they perform self-injury to activate endorphins. In fact, they feel little to no genuine pain from the injuries themselves.

It’s somewhat of a release for them, activating their body’s autonomic response to pain.


It’s true that teenagers often shoulder a lot of stress, and in some cases, they believe that by harming themselves, the stress is somewhat negated.  What many self-injurers don’t realize is that from the outside looking in, their behavior mimics destructive patterns that often lead to greater issues.

And that is where the family members of the self-injurers often tend to overreact and usher in elements and emotions that can confuse and overwhelm the young person.

Fear Rules

Many times, fear rules the day and loved ones jump to unsupported conclusions, often ending up with the self-injurer being hospitalized or rushed into clinical interventions that only serve to confuse and further agitate the issues that the adolescent is dealing with.

Here’s How You Can Help

Realize that fear is almost always an overreaction to a situation or circumstance. When dealing with a young person who is involved in self injury, a calm demeanor and reasoned response is called for.

Instead of placing the focus upon the destructive behavior, seek to encourage and reward the times when the adolescent is displaying positive, healthier behaviors.

Provide an individualized approach that allows the teen to feel genuinely appreciated, valued and comforted by the knowledge that they have your support. Provide an atmosphere of empathy over judgment. At the same time reinforcing that you love them, but not that they hurt themselves.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In many cases, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help those involved in self injury understand and manage their destructive behaviors.  Keeping a journal may also help provide a place where they may express their emotions.

Is should not be understated about the role of involving family and loved ones in the treatment of self-injuring behavior. Improving the family’s understanding of the pressures the adolescent is going through, and then developing a plan that involves the whole family can be very effective.

Listening and Communication

Learning various de-escalation exercises and increasing listening and communication skills as a family is also helpful.

Of course, all of these situations and circumstances can be helped. Helped by consulting with a local counselor. A counselor skilled at walking a family through the affects of dealing with a self-injuring young person.

Ready to Help

A New Outlook Counseling Services provides four offices across the front range of Colorado.  If you are the loved one of someone who is dealing with self-injuring behavior, please consider making the call: 720-336-4019.


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