This article is by Australia Counselling member and Geelong counsellor and therapist Colleen Morris.

When I was a child I had a habit of getting my fingers jammed in doors, particularly car doors. I can’t recall the physical pain as I write about that now, but at the time, believe it, it always hurt! At some point I made up my mind that I was never going to get my fingers jammed again. My decision  was met with success because I intentionally became aware of what I was doing when I went through any door.

I can also recall instances of emotional pain, like the time my grade 7 teacher stated in front of the entire class that I walked like a duck. I was mortified and that teacher forever lost his status as my favourite teacher! Unlike past physical pain, I am readily able to recall the emotional pain I experienced back then because my brain holds the memory of that feeling and triggers that feeling in milliseconds whenever my present experience somehow reminds me of that past experience.

Now I hate any form of pain. When I went into labor I didn’t for a second consider childbirth without some form of drug relief. It never entered my head because I simply cannot tolerate pain! However, if I had to choose between  the physical pain of giving birth to the emotional pain of, for instance, losing a child, I would choose the physical pain every time.

As a general rule physical pain is  for a short time span and in our post-modern society, many physical pain conditions are treatable. (This is a general statement as there are many instances where physical pain is prolonged and difficult to relieve). You can remember that what you were suffering was very painful at the time but you cannot actually feel the pain after it is over.

Emotional pain is much trickier. Whilst you cannot recall the physical pain, the emotions you felt such as depression, anxiety, despair and hopelessness you can recall long after the event and sometimes you may find it difficult to handle those feelings long after the event itself. Your brain holds the memory of those emotions and can bring them back to life in a moment when it is reminded of the past event.

It is for this reason that for so many young people resort to self-harm (though not exclusively – many mature adults also self-harm). Let me try to explain it as I understand it. When emotional pain becomes intolerable, intentionally harming oneself promises some form of relief from emotional pain. You are distracted momentarily by the physical pain which seems more bearable. For a time, the overwhelming feelings that hem you in, isolate and suffocate you are overtaken by the present physical pain.

As a parent or person who may have responsibility for young people, it is not always easy to discern whether a young person is self-harming. Generally a young person will not tell you, but that does not mean to assume that they would reject help. As I understand it, self-harm behaviour is a cry for help – unfortunately we do not always understand the language of that cry.

Here are 9 signs that a young person may be self-harming:

Some of these behaviours in themselves are not indicative of self-harm but in combination with other more obvious signs, can be.

  1. Uncommunicative and constantly irritable- they become easily angered if you try to find out information.
  2. Spending extended amounts of time alone, possibly listening to loud, dark, angry music. Be aware of trigger events, such as a crisis event in the family or friendship circle.
  3. ‘Covering up’ even on hot days. It has become fashionable for young people to wear  tops that cover the hands so that only the fumb shows. Young people make a hole at the end of their jumper so that they are completely covered. Heavy make up on arms and thighs may be another indication of self harm.
  4. Heavy use of medicated creams – these may be lying around their room.
  5. Unexplained skin sores and infections such as burns, cuts, scratches and bruises.
  6. Tools that your young person has designed for cutting – knives, razors or a homemade device may be around the home.
  7. An interest in self-harm themes (dark themes).
  8. Carving is one of the latest fashion statements. Young people will carve particular words on their body such as ‘stay strong’. (Demi Lovato coined this phrase, which has become a pop culture reference to seeking help.)
  9. Unexplained hospitalisations (things don’t add up). Your young person is unlikely to tell you that they have self-harmed. They will be feeling embarrassed and ashamed and will feel that their privacy has been intruded upon.

If you would like to know more about how to help a young person who is vulnerable to self harm or need support yourself, contact Colleen on 0434 337 245 or go to to book an appointment.


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