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My Child Self-Injures

My Child Self-Injures


Dear Rachel,

My son came home from kindergarten with scratches on his neck. When I called the teacher to ask what happened, she explained that he did it to himself when he was placed in time-out for ripping up another child’s artwork. Since that first time, I have also discovered bite marks that were self-inflicted during a punishment. I am really scared by this. I tried to explain to him that it is wrong to hurt yourself just like it is wrong to hurt others, but it doesn’t seem to have made an impact. We have never hit him at home, and the kindergarten teacher is also kindhearted and loving. Why would such a small child hurt himself? And more importantly, how can I make him stop?!

Biter’s Mom

Dear Biter’s Mom,

Researchers suspect that the self-injury causes the release of neurotransmitters that have a self-soothing effectThere are several reasons that small children will self-injure.

Some children will do it as an attention-seeking behavior. They hope to deflect a parent or caregiver’s anger and invoke their sympathy instead. In these cases it is important not to reinforce the child’s behavior by responding with sympathy and concern. Instead a parent should exhibit calm detachment. For example, they might say, “You can bite yourself if you want, but you still need to clean your room,” or “. . . to go to bed,” etc.

Other children will use self-harm in an educational setting in response to demands they perceive as overwhelming. In such a case, self-injury is a way of relieving their performance anxiety and lowering the expectations being placed on them.

Some children employ self-injury in a time of stress or emotional distress as a method of calming themselves down. Researchers suspect that the self-injury causes the release of neurotransmitters that have a self-soothing effect. It sounds like this may be the case with your son, who self-harmed during a punishment.

The most common self-harming behaviors among small children are biting oneself, scratching oneself, head-banging, excessive picking at skin or scars, and hair-pulling.

While an isolated incident of self-harm is not cause for undue concern, a pattern of self-harm during times of stress is definitely something that should be evaluated by a child psychologist in order to determine whether the child is at risk for serious self-injury. Furthermore self-injury may also be an early warning sign of an underlying emotional disorder such as anxiety disorder or PDD (pervasive developmental delay). In these cases, therapy is necessary to help a child learn appropriate self-soothing behaviors.

Although encountering self-harming behavior among their children is a scary and alarming experience for parents, it is actually not an uncommon one. A parent who is able to remain calm in the face of self-injurious behavior will be the most effective at dealing with it as well.

A parent who is able to remain calm in the face of self-injurious behavior will be the most effective at dealing with itThere is a mitzvah to guard our health exceedingly well (Devarim 4:15). This mitzvah expresses G‑d’s concern for our physical and emotional welfare. Like a caring parent who worries whether their child is eating and sleeping well, G‑d is also concerned about our total health and wellbeing.

Explain to your child that G‑d loves him, and G‑d is with him even though he can’t see Him. More importantly, G‑d is with him always, even during those scary times when you cannot be with him. Perhaps this understanding will help him to feel less alone and afraid during those episodes when he is tempted to self-harm.

Thanks for writing,


"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Tzippora Price.

Tzippora Price, M.Sc. is a marital and family therapist working in private practice in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She is also an acclaimed mental health journalist, and has been writing articles to increase community awareness of mental health issues for the past 14 years. She is the author of two parenting books, Mother In Progress, and Mother In Action, and a psycho-educational novel Into the Whirlwind. She can be contacted via email.

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Anonymous August 29, 2017

My son is 8 years old and yesterday I notice a mark on his arm I asked him about it and he said he didn't know so I thought he was playing got hurt and was okay but last night after his shower I notice a bigger mark on his arm so I asked him what happened he didn't want to tell me. I think he is doing this due to the fact that his dad and I aren't together but we both love him so much, I need help I don't know what to do other than talk to him and tell him how much my husband, his dad and his girlfriend, and I love him. help please I don't want him to ever do this again. Reply

Anonymous Deseronto April 7, 2017

My grandaughters is 7 and I recently discovered she self harms ...bites pulls her hair .she told me she has gone as far as to try and break her own legs and fingers and that she has tried to stop herself from breathing ..I realize this happens in stressful or dicipline issues or when she isn't getting what she wants ..I've also wondered if she doesn't have adhd do I approach her mother with this .? Concerned nanny Reply

Ruben Valencia California March 20, 2017

20 year old son punching himself Hi Racheal, My son is 20 years old he is a wrestler at a high level when he loses he gets so distraught he has punched himself severely and has left himself bruised with black eyes. what can we do? why does he do this. Reply

Anonymous Green River, Utah July 24, 2016

Dear Rachel,

My 4 year old daughter has had a pattern of self harming behavior for over 2 years. She started with slamming her head on the floor, hitting it so hard she would give herself goose eggs, and even gave herself a concussion once. She then moved on to clawing and scratching herself until she bleeds, pulling her hair out until she has a small bald spot, and biting her nails so short they bleed. I've tried EVERYTHING. Coping skills, therapy, calming bottles. Nothing has helped. In just one week her little brother will be born, and she has said multiple times that she wants to hurt him, kill him. She says she wants to kill herself, and has gone as far as telling my mother and I how she is going to chop us up into little pieces and cook us for dinner. We do NOT allow her to watch shows/movies with anything like that in them, so I do not understand where she'd get that from. In the state we live in, specialists will not help us until she's 10, what can I do? Reply

Anonymous April 2, 2016

Hi I have a 4 year old daughter who is always crying and very jealous towards other children, lately she has been saying she is going to kill herself and she hurts herself on purpose like slamming the door on her finger, I don't know why or if she is doing it to get our attention. Reply

Lillian June 16, 2014

Your child is not doing this for attention, and to suggest that they are is harmful by itself. 3 year olds throw temper tantrums for attention, they hurt themselves because they don't have the tools to let thier feelings out in a non harmful way. Rachel, you are so very very wrong to even suggest that it is attention seeking, and I hope for the sake of all involved that the OP ignores that advice and seeks a qualified therapist who understands childrens mental illeness. this 3 year old biter could become a 13 year old cutter or burner, Reply

Hannah Daughtry Charlotte, NC March 4, 2014

Dear Rachel & secondly Mother First off, Rachel, you are all but wrong when you say it's probably attention seeking behavior. When I was 3 years old I scratched and bit myself for many reasons. I am currently 17. I started to cut when I was 9 years old. I just tried it. I thought it was cool. Then it became something completely out of my own control. I cut consistently. I've attempted suicide uncountable times. 2 which were life threatening. I have been diagnosed with many mental illnesses.
Self injury is NOT attention seeking. At 3 years old it could point to mental illness, stress, or emotion instability. Even people that post pictures of their self harm on social networks are crying out for help and for someone to just show they care. They are looking for ways out. With posting of pictures it could look very attention seeking. But they are risking a lot. They are risking getting judged and made fun of horribly. By people that like to call themselves internet trolls. Realize it can be more than what you can see. Reply

Anonymous November 22, 2013

I began self-harming at age 3 and other things like persistent self-loathing "feeling sorry for myself", social anxiety, rage, trying to hurt people who I PERCEIVED to emotionally hurt me (hypersensitive). For me it is not rational its the way my mind was wired. I was eventually diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as a teen. Just offering a thought. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI May 1, 2013

Self-Injuring Child Your son is in kindergarten and "punishes" himself by injuring himself? This is a REALLY serious problem!

All children handle punishment differently, and your son clearly can't handle having to deal with the consequences of misbehaving. Maybe he's doing this to get back at anyone who hurts him.

Does your son understand right from wrong and good from bad? He should, and he should expect to face consequences if he hurts others.

Your son needs professional help, and the sooner, the better! Reply

Scared mama New milford, Pa October 23, 2012

We have a 3 year old foster child who has recently been reunited with her mother. Since mommy is back full time, the child has not stopped picking at herself, mostly her face but now other parts of her body too. I'm calling the local early intervention service cordinator tomorrow for advice Reply

Anonymous Sherman oaks, CA via October 20, 2011

Thanks you, dear Rachel. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY August 24, 2011

To Shoshana from NZ You should make an appointment with a highly recommended pediatric mental health practitioner (psychologist or psychiatrist) to discuss your child's need to self-injure. A good therapist should be able to help you help your child work through this problem and assist her in finding better ways to communicate her frustration. Good luck. Reply

chaya May 3, 2011

nice very nice said! Reply

Shoshana Wellington, New Zealand May 1, 2011

Thank you so much for this article. I have a 3 year old who bites herself & I have been in despair at times trying to work out what to do. I have even rung a parenting line who told me that they had never heard of this before. She is considered gifted & has amazing verbal skills so when I am told that she does it because she cannot express her frustrations verballing I just cannot believe it.
After reading what you have written here I think she is partially deflecting & she is partially trying to 'punish' me, she will often show me a bite mark and say " Look what you made me do", because she knows how it hurts me to see her hurt.
If anyone can give me any advice as to how to respond to this kind of behaviour I would be very grateful. Reply

Cc Texas October 5, 2017
in response to Shoshana:

Oh my gosh, my daughter is 3 amd exactly as you described your daughter. She is very "gifted" very advanced for her age, very good girl. She is very possesive, doesn't like to share and very territorial. It is just her and I aND we are along living thousands of miles away from friends and family and any support. But so randomly (which it's started to become more consistent) if I tell her no! Or tell explain to her calm why something is wrong or she shouldn't do that (so she will understand) she gets really really really sad and will walk away w her head down , or put herself in the corner, or closed fisted punch herself in the face or bang her head against the wall. I ask her "baby, what's wrong? Why are you doing that? You shouldn't hurt yourself like that" she won't ever talk to me or tell me what's wrong. She does hang on my leg when I drop her off at daycare and I have to like pry her off. I know she misses me, but I have to work and go to school. I have 1 friend who helps me but Reply