Tuesday Topic: When a Child Hurts Himself

I’m enjoying having Tuesday Topics again each week.  I was searching my email this morning finding questions some of you have sent me over the past months (yes, months) and I’m finally able to use them.  This question is from Lori:

Have you ever dealt with an adopted child who hurts themselves?  Our son has been home for about six weeks and I have been disturbed by some behavior.  He hits himself in the face, he will pick something on his finger until it bleeds, he bangs his head against his forearm (it has left a bruise on his arm that has been there from the beginning), he put soap in his eye, he is completely reckless on a scooter, and the list goes on.

I am trying to balance the fact that he is a boy and I know they are more physical, but something about his behavior troubles me.  He is six years old and has been in an orphanage his entire life.  He had medical treatment (tests and surgery) around the age of two that could have been traumatic.  I have no way of knowing all that he has dealt with in his first six years of life.

Well friends, I’m quite certain many of you have seen this kind of behavior and will have some thoughts for Lori.  Please leave a comment and encourage her by coming alongside her as she works to parent her son.

If you have a question you would like me to use as a Tuesday Topic, please email it to me at lisa@onethankfulmom.com  If you put Tuesday Topic in the subject line, it will help me be a little bit more organized and right now I need all the help I can get.

There is a bookgroup invitation on my One Thankful Mom Facebook page, just click on the image.  To find the Facebook page, click on the “Like” button on the right sidebar of my blog.  You can also use this link to locate it on the Goodreads site: One Thankful Mom Book Group .  I’ll share more about the group on Thursday.

Encourage one another,

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

25 Comments

  1. julie pitts
    October 16, 2012

    My son is a picker. He has had a scab on his ARM for MONTHS. Just when it is almost gone, he picks it open again. He also scrapes his arms and legs with lids from bottles.

    We have had him home since he was 13 months old, and like you, have no idea what he went through early in life. I take away the bottle lids once he has finished the water, juice, etc, and that obviously removes the immediate issue.

    The scab picking, from what I understand, is a sign of severe anxiety, and it helps him feel "something". I struggle with this one as well. We talk through it, but that means nothing if he continues to do it. Sorry I don't have good answers. Just wanted you to know you are
    not alone.

    Julie

    Reply
  2. Marissa
    October 16, 2012

    What a hard topic! 🙂

    First, I think it's important to make sure those behaviors are documented with the school/doctor/etc. That is important for everyone's safety.

    We had this struggle for a long time and it was really hard, especially when the evolved into more scary forms of self-injury. For us, when these behaviors came up we rushed to help our child cope and calm down. We weren't always able to do that, but over time he learned that he didn't need to handle his hurt all on his own. Once his English skills improved, he was able to learn coping skills that were healthy. It took over a year to really get a handle on self-injury.

    Recklessness is still something that we deal with, and we probably always will. It seems to stem from poor impulse control. Picking at scabs or fingers nails will also always be an issue and for my son that stems from anxiety.

    Reply
  3. mommy to many
    October 16, 2012

    I am interested in an answer to this too. I have a 8 yr old (home 2 yrs) who from day one has picked at himself or any scab until it bleeds. I would love to find a cure for this as he has picked his fingernails completely off and is working on his toenails. I can't imagine the pain he is causing himself.

    Reply
  4. Kim
    October 16, 2012

    Our younger son (age 7, home 6 months from Ethiopia) engages in this behavior when he isn't regulated. He also says things like "no good boy", "no good son". It breaks my heart every time. Our therapist mentioned that he does this because he never learned how precious he is as a child. One of her pieces of advice was to get a small handheld mirror. When you see the "real boy", when he reveals his preciousness, hold up the mirror and say, "There's the real boy. You are so precious to us. We love you so much." Things like that….. We do lots of reassuring verbally, but ultimately we keep him safe. My husband will gently hold his arms to make sure he can't hurt himself. We say, "In our family, we don't hurt each other or ourselves with our words or our bodies." Eventually we try to get to the root of his emotions by prompting him to use his words. When this doesn't work, we try deep muscle exercises (if he will cooperate) like pushing into the wall. I'm not sure if my rambling is helpful at all, but those are my initial thoughts.

    Reply
  5. Jennifer
    October 16, 2012

    Our daughter was only 1 when she came home and she used to bite herself. She used to pick any little scab and make it very large and irritated. She is 5 now and has completely grown out of this behavior.

    Reply
  6. Deb
    October 16, 2012

    I am at the extreme when it comes to this topic because I have dealt with this behavior in two of my adoptees continuously (4 and 10 years old). The behavior is not to be ignored – and not to be taken lightly. Without an effective means to deal with the anxiety/anger/attention seeking the behavior will only escalate as the children get older. Seek psychiatric treatment/therapy for the child.

    Please note – self injuring behavior is taken very seriously in a medical setting such as an ER…… even as young as a four year old who presents with behavior of injuring self and others should and would be held for further psychological evaluation. (When things with our 4 year old escalated to violent tantrums that lasted for hours we were told by the therapist to take her to the ER whenever she was a threat to herself, others, or property…… she was checked in to the mental facility for 4 days the very first time we took her. And truth be told she loved it there! She didn't react as you would expect a 4 year old to act when a parent has to leave them in a strange place with people they don't know – she smiled and waived goodbye and then skipped down the hall with her psychiatric nurse.)

    Reply
  7. Karen
    October 16, 2012

    I agree with Marissa about documentation and love Kim's response and think there is so much work for healing that needs to take place. Thinking of the more immediate need to re-direct self-harming behaviors, has anybody tried Chewelry? http://www.nationalautismresources.com/chewelry.h
    I just Goolgled "Chewelry" and this was one of the many sites that was provided.

    As a therapist, I've had some clients who had success with providing their kiddos with something like this as an outlet for their anxiety.

    Reply
  8. Karen
    October 16, 2012

    I heard on NPR just last week that the picking behavior is actually an excessive grooming disorder — the same disorder that causes people to pull out all their eyelashes and chew their nails.

    There seems to be a lot going on here and I would highly advise a trip to the pediatrician with a request for a referral to someone who specializes in attachment disorders.

    Reckless on the scooter? Boy thing. Every boy on my block has had a major scooter accident. Hasn't slowed any of them down.

    Reply
  9. Kara
    October 16, 2012

    We have just (as in this week) been using a weighted blanket. And in just a few hours, we saw immediate improvement. I've been wrapping one of our sons (Rwanda, home 3yrs) in it as soon as he starts to spiral into the self-hurting behavior. The blanket is 12 lbs and it's like instant relief when he feels it. I hold him and tell him the same things that Kim said.
    I really, really am loving the weighted blanket and wish we would have gotten one sooner. We had family members make us ours and prior to that, we still swaddled our 67lb and 47lb boys. This is much easier physically to do.

    Reply
    1. Lindsey
      October 16, 2012

      Kara- how do they make the weighted blanket? I think we need one in our house and am not sure how to go about it.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Qualls
        October 16, 2012

        Linda, I've been meaning to write a post on this for a couple of years. Maybe we can finally get it done.

        Reply
      2. Karen P
        October 18, 2012

        Lindsey–I order mine from http://www.weightedblanket.net. I've ordered with them 3 times and all of the blankets have been GREAT quality even through repeated washings. They do have a program where you can return blankets you no longer need for credit on a new one. They then will make any necessary repairs on the returns and sell them at a reduced cost. The first blanket I returned was 6 years old and was still in great shape!

        Reply
  10. Linda
    October 16, 2012

    My daughter, when she first came to us at 4yo, scratched her cheek, neck and behind her ears until she bled, and also would pull her hair out. We made it known to her social worker and doctor, and all agreed she was suffering from stress. Both of our children were extremely accident prone, and often ran into things. Counseling with an attachment emphasis helped, but also being in a safe stable environment was important. The self hurting behaviors lasted a few months, and slowly decreased. My daughter, after ten years will still pull at her eyelashes, blanks out or sleeps, and has seizures when stressed, but she also has FAS and is MR, so she doesn't have the same ability to cope as many 14 year old girls. I found that dealing with the root causes of stress was and is more effective than putting attention on the self hurting behaviors themselves. We didn't call attention to the scratching or hair pulling but focused on attachment and PTSD. It's harder to ignore a pseudo seizure, but that's just what the psychologist asked us to do, and when we did, they decreased also.

    Reply
  11. Amy
    October 16, 2012

    Our son (age nine, home 8 months) bites his arm to the point of bruising when he is hungry. We are working on helping him understand that we always have food. And that biting himself won't fill his tummy. Just trying to give lots of love and constant snacks. 🙂

    Reply
  12. Tricia
    October 16, 2012

    We did use chewelry here for a while and it helped a lot. Another thing that I heard from Bryan Post was to just calmly tell the child they are doing this to raise consciousness. They often aren't aware at all. I also agree that a professional is very helpful with self injuring behaviors and it is not to be taken lightly.

    Reply
  13. Brianne
    October 16, 2012

    At 6 months home, my son (6) was regularly self-harming in addition to being very destructive. When he was angry or frustrated, he would bite himself, bang his head, pick at himself and had very little reaction to pain. I think this type of behavior is very common in kids adopted from orphanages. For my son, the behavior served a dual purpose–it had been a good way to get attention in the orphanage, and it was communication due to his lack of language. For us, we ignored the self-harming completely and focused on the overall behavior (e.g., I might say "Oh, you're not in control, mommy will help you calm down" and hold him…but I did not say "Oh! Don't bite yourself!"). In 3 months, the self-harming completely stopped. He is still destructive and has horrible tantrums, but he figured out that there was no point in hurting himself because it didn't get the reaction he wanted.

    Adding to the problem, Kiddo has a pretty mixed up sensory system and his brain really just doesn't interpret pain the way normal people would. He may realize that biting his arm doesn't feel pleasant, but he doesn't realize that he is "supposed" to react negatively (e.g., cry or stop that behavior to make the feeling stop). It's serious, and I would document it with the doctor and with school, but I think 6 weeks home is pretty early to panic. If the child doesn't speak English, 6 weeks+ is that time where kids have NO language, and behavior is communication.

    Reply
  14. Cindy
    October 16, 2012

    wow!! I sure see alot of mom's trusting in Therapy and Psychology as the way to solve their child's problems. And to be honest…….. I am sensing fear as the motivator in our response but God says "perfect Love casts out fear". Therapy has a place, but when it's the first answer and the main answer, I began to wonder what our Faith is in? Is God not bigger than this? What is He saying to you? Can you trust His voice in the midst of this circumstance? He created this child and knows exactly what they need. Therapy can only do so much……..but God is our answer and Hope!

    Reply
    1. Ann
      October 17, 2012

      Self-harm is not one of those things you can love away or pray away. It's an emergent condition, like diabetes, that needs full medical supervision along with faith. Ideally, love and prayer would direct a parent in this situation toward expert help. Think about the story of the man who was drowning in a flood and kept refusing offers of help, saying the Lord would provide. Finally God told the man, "I've already sent you help! A truck…a boat…a helicopter…"

      Perfect love may cast out fear–for a person who believes that perfect love casts out fear. Expecting a fearful child to believe the same thing is asking too much of the child.

      Reply
      1. Deb
        October 18, 2012

        I am so glad you responded Ann – because I felt driven to respond as well, and would not have been so eloquent. I want to ask the poster above if they have an adopted child with serious trauma issues? Her response was highly judgmental and demeaning to those of us "in the trenches".
        Your first statement is absolutely 100% correct and the most difficult lesson that adoptive parents who were not adequately prepared learn the very hard way….. at least that was the case for us. We were experienced parents who felt like we could handle anything God sent our way, and to have someone say that our inability to love and pray away deeply rooted biological/chemical imbalances and traumatic brain damage is ridiculous and hurtful!
        Thank you for your perfect response.

        Reply
        1. JeffCindy Blair
          October 23, 2012

          I am not trying to be demeaning nor am I trying to be hurtful, I am speaking from my Heart what I need to hear. I need spiritual encouragement in dealing with these issues and I'm asking out loud, "don't you need that too?" Please know that I'm writing from hard places too, and carry weight in my heart. I'm really not "expecting" the child to do anything, I'm saying it starts with us (parents) first, "I" need to look in my own heart to see if fear is affecting my decisions. Don't we all need more Perfect Love that comes from the Father, I know I do. Our spirit is very important, that's how God communes with us. I don't think it's ridiculous to believe God for miracles…..

          Reply
  15. Angela
    October 17, 2012

    It is a very hard thing to have to go to school and explain that your child has been self-harming themselves AT SCHOOL, unawares to anyone there!! This topic couldn't be more relevant to what we are dealing with right now with our 7 yr old ET daughter. She has faced so many things and starting school this fall has been hard in many ways for her, even though she likes it. She goes to a very small school but is very wise in how she self-inflicts so people won't see her do it because she knows it wrong. However, the first time she explained to me that she had BIG feelings and didn't have anyone to help her get them out. I believe this to be true, since she is still processing many memories (she has almost been in our home for 1 year) and trauma from her time in ET! I encouraged our daughter to sit and write a letter to Mommy when she gets these big feelings (her teacher supports this) and then when she sees me at the end of her day she can share them with me instead of hurting herself. Another time she did this, though, she said she knew it would upset me (she wanted to hurt me, which would make sense if she is hurting inside). The hardest thing, is that this has only happened when she is at school and it leaves me feeling pretty out of control.

    Reply
  16. SMORE STORIES
    October 17, 2012

    Have any moms sought out a sensory processing assessment by an OT who specializes with Sensory Processing Disorders? I'd highly recommend that as our kid's behaviors are very rooted in how they take in the environment around them and how they process that information and ultimately deal the anxiety, fear, dis-regulation, etc.

    My prayers are with you all as I understand how challenging this road is to navigate and how helpless this makes us feel as moms.

    Reply
  17. Finnians mom
    October 17, 2012

    Hi Lori,

    This sounds so very like some of the behavor my son has. Adopted as a three year old who has always lived in an orphanage he hits himself very hard in his face or on his head whem he doesn't know what else to do to express his anger or when he is scared. He picks his thumbs when he is scared or unsure of the situation, himself or other people. He picks to the point that there is absolutely no skin on the sides of his thumbs al the way from the top to the base. i haven't found something that helps other thna to 'remember' him he should'n pick when ever I see him doing in. I 've tryed to put bandages on all other fingers except his thumbs so they could heal but he picked one thumb with the other and it took him one night to remove all eight very sticky bandages and delivered them on my pillow first thing the next morning. So I am open to suggestions 😉

    Reply
  18. Amy D
    October 17, 2012

    Thank you all for taking the time to answer! My daughter has been home about 6 weeks as well, and she does a lot of picking scabs (which I had no idea was a sign of anxiety) and also a little hitting herself. So helpful!

    Reply
  19. Ben's mom
    October 20, 2012

    I am starting to see some of this in my son (3 yo, has been with us from birth). If he meets a 'no' he gets really really upset and sometimes he will bang his head against the floor or his car seat – he then cries and points to the hurting spot: Ouch. Almost as if it's easier to deal with the hurting head than the frustration of a no. I seriously don't know what to do – I try to put words to his feelings and let him know it is not okay to hurt himself. But my reaction often gets too emotional – I hate to see him hurting himself. I hope this will lessen when his language improves so he can find a way of venting verbally instead of this.

    Reply

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