Self-harm or attention-seeking

As a clinician, it is not uncommon to come across cases involving children having to engage in deliberate self-harming behaviors such as cutting, scratching or even hitting one’s body parts. It can be absolutely devastating, not only for the parents, but also for themselves to go through such difficult time.

However, what follows next after having to find out them engaging in said activity is usually not the most supportive and helpful statement.

“ARE THEY SEEKING FOR ATTENTION?”; this is usually the one that pops in many of our heads, automatically. The speculation whether if the cut themselves are merely an act of attention-seeking can sometimes be a tricky one.

What if they are not?

Deliberate self-harm is an intentional act to cause physical injury to self WITHOUT having the intention to die. There are speculations, guesses, hypothesis, correlations about what leads to self-harm. Social media, peer influence, parental expectation, socioeconomic status, and other factors have been mentioned, over the course of studying what exactly is the main culprit of self-harm. Although it can be helpful to search for its ONE true source, however, it does not explain why they would want to intentionally hurt selves.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is “WHY DO THEY DO IT?”

True enough, most of the time, self-harm is seen as a way of getting attention. It could be from parents, peers, people around them, or generally anyone. However, is it the only reason? Our children can do so many other things in life to get attention. But why would they want to risk their well-being, and deliberately hurt themselves just to get us to look at them? Perhaps there are other ways we can look at this matter.

It could be a way to regulate their emotions. If we are to look deeper than what is presented to us, self-harm is more than just a behavior. It comprises a range of complex emotions stuffed within children’ body which can be difficult to express to anyone around them. With all these emotions having nowhere to go, and no one to turn to, turning them to self would be one way. It is not uncommon to have extreme anger, sadness and tension prior to the action of hurting self, and the tricky part of self-harming behavior is that it usually pairs with a sense of satisfaction, relief and tension reduction upon its execution.

It could also be a way to stop feeling numb and to escape from one’s sufferings. As adults, we have the tendency to minimize what children are going through just because we are “OK”. However, the reality can be very different. How would we feel, if we were constantly being told to “get on with life” when in fact, life hasn’t always been nice to us? Wouldn’t we too feel a sense of frustration and not being understood, as our call for help has not been responded? It is almost as if we are the faulty one for not being taught how to manage our emotions appropriately. These feelings, these emotions can sometimes be so overwhelming that they numb these children from feeling anything. And sometimes cutting self may even be a way for them to feel “human” again, to feel the pain as how every “OK” person would feel.

It could too be a way to punish oneself as an attempt to relieve feelings of shame, and guilt. As aforementioned, most of the time, self-harm tends to happen with extreme emotions. These emotions can be a result of self-expectations or even expectations from others. One fails to meet the minimal required scores from parents; one fails to get the first position in sports; one fails in the interviews for scholarships. All of these examples may lead to a sense of guilt with the thought of “I am not good enough” and “I’m not worthy of living”. Sometimes, when these thoughts seem so real, they will drive these children to engage in self-harming behaviors as a means to punish oneself for their “wrong-doings”.

You may still think it is an act of getting attention. Thus if I am to flip the other side of the coin and ask you:


To follow up with that question, I’m actually and genuinely curious to know if there is any lack of attention to begin with. It has to be a serious lack of attention to have these children to resolve their needs in such drastic method.

Personally and professional, I think it is important for us to know what our children are going through at this juncture. Although it is essential and vital to know the cause, it is also equally, if not, more important to know how and what we can do, as parents, teachers, psychologists, counselors, or anyone who genuinely cares for these children.

Self-harming behaviour is often misunderstood.

People who self-harm are mostly seen as “not communicating”, and/or “not sharing their problems”.

“HOW DO WE HELP, IF THEY DON’T TELL US?”; We tend to say that, assuming that communication is an one-way street, which in fact it is never the case.

Self-harm is itself, a way of communication.

It communicates displeasure, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, sadness, and many other emotions that may be beyond our vocabulary.

And more often than not, it is a way of communicating something that cannot be conveyed with words.

It’s high time to look deeper.

Those who self-harm do not always look for YOUR attention.

If there is anything they look for, that could be your unconditional support and care whenever they need you the most.

So as the guardian for our children, it is absolutely necessary to educate them to not only speak and express to us (which is important), but also to let them learn about the warning signs when their emotions hit the limit. The earlier they know what they are experiencing, the sooner we can seek help.

Self-harm does not usually come overnight. It happens overnight, yes. But it is the accumulation of multiple thoughts, incidents, experiences, and emotions.

It is until the point where the world looks so dark and cold. And self-harm may seem to be the only way out.

But again, linking to my points above, if we can help them by letting them know, getting them to be aware that we are there for them; YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

We are always here; we know how hard it must be for you. you are not and never a burden. WE LOVE YOU WHOLEHEARTEDLY.

Sometimes, being there for that person is enough.

We do what we can to help, and if everybody starts by doing a little something, everyone will and can be helped.

Contributed by Ivan Lee

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