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Children and teens engaging in self-harming behaviors – Help!


By Dore Quinn, M.Ed., LPC

As a Licensed Professional Counselor, it seems there has been an increase recently of parents in my office upon discovering their child has been self-harming.  Self-harming is a topic that can be very uncomfortable for parents and children to address, but necessary for the emotional and physical health of our children.

Self-harming can occur in several different ways such as cutting one’s skin, scratching, burning (either with cigarettes or an ice/salt combination), pulling one’s hair, biting self, or picking at sores thus not allowing the sores to heal.  The most common forms of self- harm that I have observed in private practice is cutting and /or scratching.  For the purposes of this blog, I will mainly address cutting and scratching.

There are several reasons why a person may self-harm.

  • The person has very strong emotions and doesn’t know how to cope with them, thus they cut so he/she can focus on the physical pain rather than the emotional pain.
  • The person has ignored emotions to the point where he/she feels dead inside and cuts in order to feel something.
  • The person “enjoys” the rush of adrenaline that often accompanies injury to the body.
  • The person feels the need to punish self.

According to self-report of the children I have worked with, most of them cite the first reason as their reason for engaging in self-harm.  Bad things happen in life, and as humans, we find ways of self-soothing during hard times much as a baby who sucks his thumb in order to feel better.  Children who self-harm have picked a method of self-soothing that happens to be injurious rather than helpful.

Self-harming usually is inflicted upon the body either on the arms, upper thighs, stomach, or breasts.

Tools of choice in self-harming usually consists of:

  • Scissors
  • Knives
  • Razors
  • Pins (safety and straight)
  • Anything else sharp

What are some indicators that a teen may be self-harming?

  • Wearing long sleeves, hoodies, sweatshirts, or jackets when it is warm outside.
  • Wearing multiple bracelets on one or both arms (covering up injuries).
  • Wearing sweatbands around wrists (it’s not in fashion….)
  • Association with one or more friends who also self-harm.

Self-harming is a private activity, thus the parents usually are the last to know.  Often it is discovered because the child’s friend discovers the self-harming and reports it to either a school counselor or his or her own parent who then informs the parent of the child who is self-harming.  Parents, fight the urge to feel guilt if your child self-harms; it isn’t useful!  At this stage, getting help is the main goal, not taking on guilt.

Be aware that many children will initially deny self-harming (to friends, siblings, and parents) and try to explain away current wounds.  I have heard children say that they have skin conditions, the cat scratched them, a bottle broke on them, etc.  If you suspect your child is self-harming, then assume that you are right and get professional help.

All the children and teens I have worked with admitted self-harming during the first session and actually were relieved to be getting help.

If a child is discovered to be self-harming, it is extremely important for that teen to receive professional help.

There are several things that I will usually do with a teen during counseling:

  • I usually begin by explaining the role that emotions play in healthy living and the importance of being aware of emotions and identifying them.
  • Identify which emotions the teen avoids and why he or she avoids feeling that emotion.
  • Learn short-term alternatives to cutting such as snapping self with a rubber band or using ice-cubes instead of razors.
  • We discuss alternatives to self-harming and learn healthy coping skills other than cutting.
  • Learn relaxation and deep-breathing exercises.
  • Learn triggers that lead to self-harming (such as family drama, failing a class, etc.).
  • Identify any perfectionistic tendencies the teen may have.
  • Work to identify negative views the teen may have about self and work to neutralize those negative thoughts.
  • Identify the teen’s strengths and how to utilize those strengths to end self-harming behaviors.

A part of self-harming that parents don’t often think about is how to help the teen address questions that other people may have when scars are observed and commented on.  First off, I tell teens that making personal comments about someone’s body is considered in our culture to be rude.  Therefore, they are not obligated to address comments or questions by other kids if they choose not to.  If they do choose to address comments or questions, I advise them to view their scars as part of their journey to learn healthy living skills and not something of which they need to be ashamed.  In a practical sense, I tell them to answer by saying, “Oh that…I used to self-harm, but I don’t anymore.  I’m in a good place now.”

Parents also need to be prepared to respond when their child tells them they know of someone who is self-harming.  It can be scary and bewildering to many children when they discover someone they know is self-harming.  Parents, if your child tells you that they know someone who is self-harming, it is a good idea to get the name of the child and report it to either the parent of that child (if you know the parent) or the school counselor.  It can be reported anonymously.  Don’t be afraid to discuss self-harming with your child.  Discussing it is not going to make your child want to do it, but will help your child understand something that can be confusing and scary. Help your child understand the importance of not ridiculing or harassing someone who self-harms.  Help your child understand the importance of that person getting help.  Help your child learn to view that person as someone who is in pain and not as weird or a “loser.”

With professional help, self-harming behavior can be overcome!  I have seen many teens learn healthy coping skills and end self-harming behaviors.  It has been rewarding to watch a teen grow, develop a healthy self-esteem and gain a positive outlook on life!

Additional Recourses:

Understanding Self-Harm


Talking Self-harm


If you would like Dore to come talk to your group or find out more about Kaleidoscope Counseling please call 214-499-0396

Kaleidoscope Counseling also post regularly on: Facebook Fan Page and Pinterest.

Dore Quinn is a licensed professional counselor at Dr. Kay Sudekum Trotter Counseling Services PLLC

Dore Quinn is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Kaleidoscope Counseling

Dore is a licensed professional counselor. She earned both her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and her Master of Education in Counseling from the University of North Texas. Dore has experience working with individuals, couples, adolescents, groups, children and families. She works with those who are striving to overcome depression, anxiety, effects of sexual and physical abuse, grief, marital and parenting issues.

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Parenting Your Teenager

By Dore Quinn, MEd, LPC – Dore is a licensed professional counselor, who works with those who are striving to overcome depression, anxiety, effects of sexual and physical abuse, grief, marital and parenting issues. Dore uses many different counseling modalities including traditional talk therapy, expressive art therapy, experiential therapy and play therapy (for the young ones).

I have often heard parents with young children lament the time when their child turns into a teen. For some reason, many look on that time with dread (could it be, perhaps, that many are thinking back to when they were a teen?). I have found the teen years to be fun, and quite different from having small children. There are many things we as parents can do to build a relationship with our teen.

To me, it begins with learning to allow our children to be his or her own person within the rules of the home.  I have often thought of how much easier this whole parenting thing would be if each child came with his/her own manual, but we all know they don’t.

I remember before having my first child thinking, “Wow…we are going to have it so easy between my easy-going personality (which I have since learned isn’t so easy-going) and their dad’s easy-going personality (which really is easy-going)!”  Yes, those of you with kids know how UNTRUE and naïve that thought is because what I didn’t realize at that time is that each child comes with his/her own personality.

Our children are not combinations of us, nor where they meant to be.  It took me a few years to recognize that I was trying to turn my oldest into a “mini-Dore” because the way I thought was the right way to think or else I wouldn’t be thinking it, right?   And yes, we clashed quite a bit until I realized what I was doing.  As I was going about trying to make her into a mini-me, I completely overlooked her own person.  The message I was sending without intending is that there was something wrong with her.

So then what was my job?  I determined that my job as a parent was not to turn her into a mini-me, but to love her, protect her, and teach her right from wrong.  It’s also important to not expect our children to be like their siblings.

In order to have a good relationship with your teen, home needs to be a safe haven from the rest of the world.  A saying that I have repeated over and over (and my kids can recite it verbatim) is that not everyone on the planet is going to love them, but their family will ALWAYS love them!

A good way to foster a “Home is a safe haven” environment is to NOT ALLOW sarcasm and nastiness among siblings.  We need to be sure we aren’t engaging in it as well, whether it is with a spouse or with our children.

Another important component of building a relationship with your teen is to learn to laugh.  Don’t be afraid to play and be playful.  We don’t always know the impact that having fun in our homes will have.  During my son’s first year of college out-of-state, he posted the following status on Facebook:  “To either Mom or Dad…whoever sees this first:  I was on Facebook with my iTunes on shuffle and “Love Will Keep us Alive” by The Eagles came on and it made me think about how a while back at the Buckner house on Saturday nights we would open all of the windows and the front door and play music on Dad’s stereo and dance around the living room…I’m tired of growing up.”  I had no idea that fun times such as that would be important to my son.

Lighten up!  Discipline on a “lighter note.”  For example, when your teen asks to come home one hour after his 12 o’clock curfew, instead of going into a long lecture on obedience, say something such as, “So what I hear you saying is, “Mom, I REALLY want to come home at 11:00?”  This is a much less intense confrontation.  Another example would be my son and I were joking around on the way to school, and he said something that was over the line.  We were pulling up to the school and I said, “Sorry Mom….” And he completely ignored me.  After he took two steps towards the front door of the school, I rolled down the window and said, “That’s okay…as soon as you get to the door I’m going to shout out to you if you remembered to take your anti-diarrhea medicine this morning.”  I got a prompt apology without offense being taken.

Another way to build a relationship with your teen is to learn to criticize less.  There is a distinct difference between consequences and criticism.


“Gee, since you chose to come home after curfew, you chose to not go out tomorrow.”


“Did you EVEN stop to think I would worry about you?  You are so irresponsible and don’t care about anyone but yourself!”

Criticism doesn’t address the actual problem; it merely makes a global statement about the other person’s character.  The problem with criticisms is that it elicits defensiveness, and seldom results in behavior change.  Especially be careful to not nit-pick the small things.

An example of nit-picking the small things would be giving your teen a hard time because he/she got a “B” on a test instead of an “A”.  Nit-picking results in a teen believing they can never do anything right in the eyes of the parent, so why bother?  Eventually they give up and then there are bigger problems.

Building a relationship with your teen can result in many years of joy and can offset the tough times that are bound to come along with your kids growing up

Keys to Remember

  • Allowing your children to be themselves
  • Not allowing meanness at home, learning to laugh
  • Disciplining with a lighter touch
  • Criticizing less

These are just a few ways to achieve a meaningful and fun relationship with your teen.

If it seems like a daunting task, pick one area and work to make one small change.

Even one small change will impact your relationship and your family in a positive way!

You can contact Dore at: 214-499-0396, or visit our web site

Teen Depression is on the rise be sure you know the Warning Sings of Teen Depression 

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Task of Childhood – Early Adolescent Development Ages 11-14

“Perhaps the most difficult phase of life is early adolescence. It is a phase when your child is not yet mature but he is no longer a kid”

Cognitive Stage
Adolescents vary between some children who are still focused on logic and others who are able to combine logical and abstract thinking. Some early adolescents cannot think ahead to the consequences of their actions. They are developing new thinking skills, such as thinking more about possibilities, thinking more abstractly, thinking more about the process of thinking itself, thinking in multiple dimensions, and seeing things as relative rather than absolute. They practice new thinking skills through humor and arguing with parents and others, and the
use of humor focused on satire, sarcasm, and sex.

Moral Development
Early adolescents have a continuing self-focus and often believe they are invulnerable to negative events.They also have an increasing ability to take the perspective of others into account with their own perspective. In addition, as they become concerned about gaining social approval, their morals begin to be based on respect for the social order and agreements between people or what is known as “law and order” morality. Youth also begin to question social conventions, re-examine their own values and moral/ethical principles, which sometimes results in conflicts with their parents.

An early adolescent’s self-image can be challenged by body changes during puberty as well as social comparisons. This is also when they begin to develop the long-term process of establishing their own identity separate from family. Many girls experience pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and might show less interest in math and science. With puberty, normal increases in girls’ body fat can negatively influence their body image and self-concept. Both boys and girls might be concerned with skin problems, height, weight, and overall appearance.

Relationship to Parents
Changes in parental expectations alter previous patterns of relationships, often resulting in greater conflict. Early adolescents also have a greater focus on peer friendships as they develop an identity outside of the role of a child in a family. They also often rebuff physical affection (but still need it). They have an increased interest in making their own decisions, which benefits from increased opportunities to do so. Youth object more often to parental limitations (but still needs some). Parental listening skills and nurturing continue to be important.

Emotional Traits
Youth age 11-14 have an intense self-focus, an increased desire for privacy, and a sensitivity about their body. They also have frequent mood swings with changes in activities and contexts. Too much time spent alone can contribute to moodiness and heighten forgetfulness.

Peer Relationships
Early adolescent friendships increasingly involve sharing of values. Cliques of three to six friends (usually the same gender) provide a greater sense of security. Romantic crushes are common and dating begins.

You can download the complete “Task of Childhood” brochure

4 Blog Series 

  1. Task of Childhood Development
  2. Tasks of Childhood – Late Childhood Development Ages 8-11
  3. Task of Childhood – Early Adolescent Development Ages 11-14
  4. Task of Childhood – Late Adolescent Development Ages 14-18 

If you would like Dr. Kay Trotter to come talk to your group or find out more about her counseling practice, you can contact her at: Kay@KayTrotter.com214-499-0396, or visit her web site

Dr Trotter also post regularly on her: Facebook Fan Page and Pinterest.

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