Explaining self-injury to children

One of the moments I’ve been dreading happened today.

The kids and I were sitting in a restaurant this morning, finishing up a breakfast treat, when one of my children showed me the other child’s arm. It was covered in self-inflicted bite marks.

Shit. Shit. Shit. NO. This cannot be happening, I thought to myself.

Out loud, I asked, “Why are you doing this?” The response was simply “It’s one of the things I do.” I explained as calmly as I could that the child needed to stop this behaviour, if for no other reason than the possibility of infection. The child hadn’t thought of that as a possibility, and offered to do it in a cleaner way.

No. Not what I meant.

Deep breath.

I pushed up my sleeves, held out both arms in front of both of my children and I said, “What do you see?”

They looked closely, and commented first only on the freckles. Then the biter noticed. Thin-faded crisscrosses on both arms. Some thicker marks here and there, all old and camouflaged by over a decade’s worth of time.

That child’s eyes grew wide, and the questions began. I talked about depression, I talked about how this wasn’t because people were mean to me, but that my brain just isn’t wired like a lot of other people’s, and just like both of them have autism, my depression and anxiety mean my brain doesn’t always let me respond to situations the way other people might.

I talked about how when I saw my child’s wounds, I was worried about that child coming to rely on the endorphins that come from inflicting pain as a way of making everything else feel just a little bit less shitty, because that’s how it started for me. And I told them that even though I haven’t cut myself since a few years before they were born, I started my self-injurious behaviour when i was younger than they are now.

I never intended to keep my mental health history a secret from my children, but I wasn’t expecting to have the conversation over brunch when they were tweens. I think my own experience has made it in some ways easier for me to see red flags in my own kids, but at the same time, maybe it’s also made me too sensitive to what might just be “normal” kid behaviour.

My kids have a a somewhat better understanding of depression as “disease,” and not just the simplistic idea that people have mental health crises solely due to external factors, and that “cheering up” can be about as effective as encouraging a diabetic to grow a new pancreas. But it also means I’ve given them one more thing to worry about, and their anxieties about their mother’s vulnerability are so high already.

Right choice? I have no idea if there was a right choice in this situation.



  1. April 30, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    You are very brave and I think it was definitely the right choice.

  2. Elizabeth Mitchell (: said,

    May 1, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    I think you did the right thing, for sure. Even though your kids are only “tweens,” that doesn’t mean a thing. For me, I was biting myself at the young age of four or five. Only when I was mad to “gain control” over myself. Isn’t that crazy? A four-five year old thinking like that!

    I salute you, in the fact that you talked to your children about it. I wish my mother had talked to me about it, though she doesn’t understand it. Perhaps if she had, I wouldn’t have struggled with it for so long.

    I will most certainly be telling my children(if I have any) about self-harm, and the damage it does to you, not only physically, but in every other aspect as well.

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