How to Teach Self-Injurious Behavior in Preschoolers

A preschooler who purposefully injures herself is alarming to parents and caregivers. A child’s pediatrician is usually the best starting point for assessing what is going on with such a preschooler. If she is in day care or preschool, the child’s teacher might also have some ideas of where to turn for guidance as well as helping you gauge what behavior is normal and what needs to be looked at further.

How Children May Hurt Themselves

Preschoolers can harm themselves in a variety of ways, ranging in seriousness and severity. Some children pull their hair or bite at their nails and fingers. Others pound their heads. In some cases, children will cut or burn themselves, bite their own bodies, or pick at scabs compulsively, causing cuts to reopen.

Causes of Self-Injury

Young children self-injure for a variety of reasons. In some cases, repetitive or self-injuring behavior can be a warning sign of a condition such as autism. For others, it’s a reaction to severe stress. Inflicting injuries upon herself can be a warning sign that a child is being abused, either directly or by witnessing violence in the household.

How to Handle A Preschooler Who Self-Injures

Offer lots of affection to children who self-injure and try to reduce the child’s stress level, if possible. Discuss the behavior with the preschooler, explaining how dangerous self-injury can be and ask whether the child wants to talk about what’s going on or why he feels the need to hurt himself.

Minimizing Damage   

Preschoolers prone to self-injury should never be left unsupervised, even for small periods. Keep scissors, knives, lighters and any other objects that could be used for self-injury in a secure place. Put bumpers on hard edges of tables and counters to reduce the likelihood of serious injury for children who bang their head or have uncontrolled temper tantrums. Keep self-inflicted wounds clean and covered and see a doctor for medical treatment when necessary.

When to Seek Professional Help

When self-injury is accompanied by a dislike of physical affection or by regularly wanting to be alone rather than with other children or family members, it can be a sign that something else is going on, according to the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. In those cases, get help immediately. Pediatricians, child psychiatrists, preschool teachers and guidance counselors can all steer parents in the right direction for assistance with a self-injuring child.

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