Children who are distressed sometimes hurt themselves as a means of coping. In young children this may take the form of banging their head or hitting themselves with an object. In older kids it's more likely to be expressed through cutting, scratching, burning, or scarring the skin. They may also repeatedly bite or pick at the skin, stick themselves with thumb tacks, or even embed small objects such as paper clips. These behaviors are referred to by professionals as non-suicidal self injury, or NSSI for short. Millions of youth engage in NSSI behaviors across the United States each year.
The prevalence of self-injury among kids
Self-injury among children is surprisingly common. One survey found that exactly one-quarter (25%) of children responded yes to the question: "Have you ever hurt yourself on purpose when you were stressed or upset?" (Kids Health, 2005) Another study of teens ages 12 to 18 found that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the kids surveyed admitted to engaging in self injury at least once. (Moninger, 2011) It's also estimated that as many as half of those with borderline personality disorder regular practice NSSI.
Self-Injury & Suicide
Self-injurious acts may be a warning sign for suicidal tendencies, but they do not by themselves mean that a child is suicidal. There could be many other reasons for such behavior that are not coupled with a desire to die. Most people who cut themselves are not suicidal, but rather, are trying to manage pain through self-injury, according to Brown University psychologist Shirley Yen. (Springen, 2010) "Most want to kill their emotional angst," agrees Janis Whitlock, Ph.D., director of Cornell University's Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior. "It's not that they actually want to die." (Moninger, 2011)
Mental health experts estimate that around 60% of kids who practice cutting or self-injury aren't actually trying to end their life. Of course, this still leaves a sizeable 40% who are suicidal. Moreover, these behaviors can sometimes escalate into suicidal thoughts or reach a state where a child accidentally cuts too deep. Not realizing the danger, they end up inadvertently severing an artery and killing themselves.
Furthermore, while some kids may do it just once or twice as an experiment, repeated self-injury is a sign that a child is significantly disturbed in one way or another. So all acts of self-injury in children need to be taken seriously.