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Self-Harm: Legitimate Coping Skill or a Silent Scream for Help?

In an article I wrote titled Why I’m Grateful for My Son’s Self-Injury,” I describe my son’s depression and the use of cutting to release some of his inner pain. This self-injury turned into an addictive and compulsive act that culminated in several suicide attempts. Cutting became his demon; one that needed to be fed, demanded attention, and was in control. No longer was my son the master of himself, the demon was. He described it as a monster, an obsession, “I want to cradle my obsession and love my obsession. . .the monster that has festered for, it seems like an eternity, inside of me. . .”

Self-Harm was used by my son as a coping skill. Sometimes it reduced his inner turmoil and sometimes it drew him to the brink of suicide. He did not know how he would feel or react when he was in the midst of the demon’s clutches. He did not realize that it was holding him back from achieving all of his aspirations.

Not everyone who self-harms is as absorbed as my son became, but many become overwhelmed by its addictive pull. My son stated in a personal poem, “If only I knew the weight of my decision and stopped the self-harm at the first incision.” He knew that he should not have started cutting, but once he began he couldn’t stop. He wanted help and the wounds were his way of silently screaming for that help.

Many articles describe cutting in a very different way. I have read authors describe self-injury as having a purpose as a “legitimate coping mechanism.”

The word legitimate means real, genuine, not false as well as conforming to known principles and accepted rules. Can self-injurious behavior be labeled as a legitimate coping mechanism?

If classifying an act of violence toward oneself-where blood is shed, bruises are created, hair is pulled out or poison is ingested-as a legitimate skill to cope with emotional turmoil, sadness, anxiety, anger or rejection; wouldn’t substance abuse, excessive drinking, eating disorders or engaging in dangerous, life-threatening activities also have to fall under the category of a legitimate coping mechanism?

What does the word coping really mean?

In psychology, coping “is expending conscious effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress or conflict.”

The term coping generally refers to adaptive or constructive coping strategies, i.e. the strategies reduce stress levels. However, some coping strategies can be considered maladaptive, i.e. stress levels increase. Maladaptive coping can thus be described, in effect, as non-coping.

Self-Harm as a coping strategy does work for many people and they would say it reduces stress, but only for a short time. Often shame and embarrassment follow the act of self-injurious behavior and this can increase stress levels, so self-harm could be described as a maladaptive coping skill. In the long run it is not helping the person to solve and master their problems; it is becoming one of the problems.

Anyone who self-harms should not be shamed or criticized for their actions. To be in a place where the only thing that takes away your emotional pain is physical pain is a terrible place to be. Self-Harmers need to be loved, unconditionally, and treated with respect and compassion. They need to know that they will not be judged, ignored or mocked. They need guidance to find constructive coping strategies, so the day will come when hurting themselves is no longer an option.

I am the parent of a cutter, I have never personally engaged in self-injurious behavior and I cannot say that I fully understand how someone feels when they make the decision to hurt themselves. I can tell you how heart-wrenching it is to watch your child suffer. I can tell you how helpless you feel when your child is in pain. I can tell you that a parent would do anything to take that pain away.

I did everything I could to help my son deal with his anguish in a productive way, a way that provided him with life skills for the future. It was a battle to persuade him that cutting, although “soothing” in the moment, was actually doing more harm than good. In order for him to fully heal–physically, socially, and emotionally–he needed to face his emotional demons head on. When he finally did, it set him on a path to seek out positive coping skills, it didn’t happen overnight and there were years of ups and downs, but eventually my son realized that self-harm held him back from achieving all of his hopes and dreams.

“A single reason to continue on this path I have made for such a long time has left me completely. I am slowly beginning to realize what this has held me from becoming, that I am capable of achieving all my aspirations. That the monster that has festered for, it seems like an eternity, inside of me can be tamed, and being held back from the true self will only cause me to bask in the reality that is me. Relishing every moment I succeed.”—Matthew’s journals

Is self-injury a legitimate coping skill or a scream for help? What do you think?


Self-Harm: Legitimate Coping Skill or a Silent Scream for Help?

Theresa Larsen

Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. She is a trained presenter and coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Ending the Silence”, a mental health awareness program for youth. She is also a writer and her writing credits include a Welsh children's book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on Yahoo, PsychCentral, The Mighty, The Stigma Fighters Anthology Volume 2, and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother. Learn more about Theresa at

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APA Reference
Larsen, T. (2018). Self-Harm: Legitimate Coping Skill or a Silent Scream for Help?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Jun 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.