Question of the week: Do elementary age children “cut” or self-harm?


This might seem like a strange question to many of us especially for people who work with and minister to children. Is it really possible that young children want to self-insure or hurt their own bodies?

Most of us have heard about teenagers that cut and self-harm but how many of you have dealt with an elementary age child who is cutting? I have, but it didn’t appear as cutting in the beginning.

One 3rd grade girl

With one elementary age girl it started out as her scratching herself. At first we began to notice she would pick excessively at scabs. She would pick at them until they would bleed. Then we began to see places on her arms that looked like scratches. She said a cat did the scratching.

We checked with her single parent dad and she didn’t have a cat. Then one day I caught her using the scissors on her arm. She said her arm was itching and she needed to scratch it so she used the scissors instead of her hand.

I called a child development specialist and began to educate myself on self-harm and especially on cutting.

This child lived in a stressful situation. She had many behavior issues. Some people thought she was just doing this for attention but we learned that rarely are children hurting themselves just for attention. There are other ways to get attention.

Ages of cutters and other self-harmers

There is some research that shows kids as young as five years of age begin self-harming or self-insuring. Like my third grade friend they start with harming themselves by

  • Scratching
  • Picking wounds
  • Biting
  • Hitting
  • Jabbing
  • Poking
  • Carving
  • Head banging

Before the 1990s most people weren’t concerned with children that were insuring themselves. But in the late 1990s medical professionals began reporting more cases of possible self-harm. It seems there isn’t much data before that time. Professionals began to sit up and take notice when these kids showed up in their waiting rooms.

  • What we need to realize is that what was done by young adults is now done by teens.
  • What was done by teens is now being done by tweens.
  • What was done by tweens has now seeped down to elementary age children.

Research about the ages of children self-harming

One 2012 study of 665 youth in the journal Pediatrics found 7.6 percent of third graders and 12.7 percent of ninth graders self-injured. While that doesn’t seem like a high number of third graders are self-harming it is still alarming that any third grade child would be so overwhelmed and distressed that they would try self-insuring.

Dr. Steve Pastyrnak, division chief of pediatric psychology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., told HealthPop in an email that self-injurious behavior is driven by

  • Intense anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • And frustration.

“And kids as young as 7 can and do experience these strong emotions,” He went on to say, “even kids as young as 18 months can harm themselves during the ‘terrible twos’ by banging their heads, scratching or biting themselves or throwing themselves on the floor.

Another research project in 2012 discovered that third-grade children – kids of 7 and 8 years old – self-harm at a rate similar to young adolescents, and up until the sixth grade, boys are almost as likely as girls to self-harm.

Kids who engage in self-harm is now sending elementary age children to the hospital. According to Kids Data in the US almost 700 children aged 5 – 12 entered the hospital due to self-inflicted injuries.

Elementary school-aged children are self-injuring at higher and higher rates. Parents, church leaders, schoolteachers and others need to realize these children need help in developing coping skills.

Stay tuned. Next up:  Why children self-harm and recognizing the signs


4 thoughts on “Question of the week: Do elementary age children “cut” or self-harm?

  1. Pingback: DC4K » Do elementary age children “cut” or self-harm? Part II

  2. Pingback: DC4K » Do elementary age kids cut? Part III

  3. As a child of my divorce, I developed anxiety attacks, hair loss, and self-inflicted body harm. I didn’t realize until after reading this article that I had this problem during my parents turbulent marriage and after they divorced. My nerves were terrible during that time and in my mind I thought that I had developed a skin rash. I would scratch the rash so much to the point of where it would become a sore and my flesh exposed. It grew as my anxiety grew. My whole entire arm look mutilated by me scratching it so much. I was embarrassed to show my arm anywhere especially at school because kids would ask me if I had gotten burned.

    With my story told, this does occur within elementary school aged children, as I was a victim to this disease. Thankfully God gave me enough of His grace and mercy to stop the abuse against my body completely. One day, I was fed up with kids asking me what happened to my arm and I was tired of hiding it so I told myself I would stop. I don’t believe that it was my own will power to stop. I had a praying mother and praying family whom covered me.

    I believe as parents when demonic forces come against our children and we feel hopeless, we have to go deep into our prayer closet. We have to call out to our Lord, the King, and ask Him to intervene in our situation. Ask God to fix what we can’t.

    • Saundra, thank you for sharing your story with us. And thank you for sharing how you got through this time in your life. As you point out it is important to have praying people around you. While this might not stop every child from self-harm, prayer can bring comfort to the hurting child. And yes we can ask God to fix what we can’t.

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