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When to Seek Counseling for Self Destructive Behavior in Children

by Rebekah Richards, studioD

Some children and adolescents engage in self-destructive behavior, such as cutting or burning for a variety of reasons, either as a way to deal with intense feelings or cope with traumatic events. Self-destructive behavior may also be a sign of depression. Parents should seek help from a doctor or counselor if children exhibit self-destructive behavior, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.


Self-destructive behavior includes cutting, carving, branding, burning, biting and scratching. Children may use sharp objects, razors, cigarette lighters or matches to hurt themselves. Children may also pull at their skin or hair, bang their heads or acquire excessive body piercings. However, your child's injuries may not be obvious to you or others; many people who self-injure hide injuries or scars from others, according to KidsHealth.org.

Causes and Risk Factors

Children self-injure for several reasons, including getting relief from bad feelings or coping with pressure. Children may also hurt themselves in order to rebel, fit in with their peers or take risks. Children who are depressed or aggressive, experience family losses, have suicidal parents or experience family violence are more likely to be self-destructive, according to "Psychiatric Clinics of North America." Self-injury can also be associated with mental health problems such as eating disorders and bipolar disorders, according to KidsHealth.org.

Getting Help

Talk to your child's doctor if he is expressing self-destructive behavior. Your doctor may refer your child to a mental health professional, who can help diagnose the reasons your child is engaging in self-injury. Treatment for self-destructive behavior depends on the cause and may include individual therapy, family therapy and medication. Although some children who engage in self-destructive behavior may develop Borderline Personality Disorder as they grow older, others grow out of it, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Emergency Situations

Children don't usually try to permanently injure themselves or commit suicide when they cut or self-injure, according to KidsHealth.org. However, if your child feels like she wants to die or is considering or attempting to kill herself, call 911 or go to the emergency room, says the National Institute of Mental Health. Don't leave her alone and ensure she can't access firearms, medication or other dangerous objects. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for confidential advice 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

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