Childhood Trauma And Self-Harm.


Childhood Trauma And Self-Harm

Many research studies (eg Arnold, 1995) have demonstrated a link between having been abused as a child and self-harm. In one study,84% of individuals who self-harmed reported that childhood trauma had contributed to their condition.


The following are examples:

-skin cutting
-skin burning
-compulsive skin picking
-hair pulling
-interfering with wound healing
-swallowing foreign objects
-pulling off nails

Whilst it sounds counter-intuitive, self-harm is fundamentally a COPING MECHANISM born out of trauma and a profound sense of powerlessness.

childhood trauma and self-harm


Self-harm has been described as a kind of ‘pain-exchange’. This means invisible, extreme emotional pain is converted into visible, physical wounds. After a period of self-injury individuals report feeling calmer and more able to cope. Self-injuring causes the brain to release ‘natural pain killers’ which may have the twin effect of diminishing psychological pain. A further theory is that, due to an individual’s self-loathing (see later in the post), self-injury acts as a form of self-punishment which the individual consciously or unconsciously believes s/he deserves.

Typically, people who self-harm are emotionally fragile and highly sensitive to rejection.


Not all self-harm is direct. Indirect methods include:

-substance misuse
-extreme risk taking
-staying in an abusive relationship

With these, the damage is not immediate, but, rather, they are physically and/or psychologically damaging over the long-term.


The following have been found to be associated with self-harm:

-physical/sexual/emotional abuse
-loss of primary care giver (eg through divorce)
-having ’emotionally absent’ parent/s
-growing up in a chaotic family (eg due to parental mental health problems)
-being raised in the care system
role reversal in child-parent relationship (eg child acting as a disturbed parent’s counselor)

Furthermore, many who self-harm have NEGATIVE CORE BELIEFS such as the following:

-I am bad/evil
-I am worth nothing
-I shouldn’t have been born
-I’m never good enough
-I don’t deserve to be happy
-I’m unlovable
-I’m inferior
-I don’t fit in anywhere
-there’s something wrong with me

Such beliefs lead to: SELF-LOATHING and EXTREME LOW SELF-ESTEEM. This in turn leads to emotional distress which can trigger acts of self-harm such as those illustrated in this post. My next post will look at ways we can minimize our risk of self-harming.


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David Hosier BSc(Hons); MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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