It is impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of self-injury. It can manifest itself in the lives of students who otherwise seem well adjusted and to be living in secure environments. However, research indicates that there are three recurring themes reported by self-injurers who participated in the studies.

Risk factors noted in research include:

  • Emotion regulation capacity
  • Childhood trauma
  • Family dynamics and changes
  • Parental Criticism
  • Deficits in Communication Skills
  • Negative cognition (including a negative bias in interpreting social feedback from others- from research on the brain)
  • Comorbidity with other mental health disorders, including ADHD and depressive and anxiety symptoms paired with poor sleep quality
  • Perfectionism
  • Rumination

Life events often reported by self-injurers include:

Sexual and Physical Abuse

The connection is tenuous, with researchers finding conflicting results. It is possible that when this factor is combined with other factors, such as an invalidating environment, self-injury is more likely to occur. One individual stated, “I definitely think that if I hadn’t been abused it’s very unlikely that I would be a self-harmer.” (Alexander & Clare, 2004).

Invalidating Environments

Self-injury is often connected to invalidating environments where children’s thoughts and behavior are met by erratic, insensitive, or inappropriate responses from their parents. (Linehan, 1993) This finding was corroborated by a later study which suggested that perceived parental criticism and a sense of alienation were significantly related to the presence of self-injury.

Sexuality/Sexual Identity

A study including 16 interviewees who identified as lesbian or bisexual found themes of common experience emerging from the analysis of the interviews, including: 1) Bad experiences, 2) Invisibility and Invalidation, and 3) Feeling different. One research participant commented, “I grew up taking it for granted that there was something wrong with me.” (Alexander and Clare, 2004)

But…. Why?*

Once a student self-injuries, why do they continue? There are several models to explain the function and purpose of NSSI in a student’s life. Broadly, NSSI is a coping strategy for emotional stress. There are three models to address why the behavior continues.


-To avoid psychological pain

-to express psychological distress

-to refocus one’s attention away from negative stimulus


This model describes NSSI when it is undertaken to seek social connection or attention in some way. The fact that NSSI can be contagious also suggests a social factor for some who engage in self-injury.


This model focuses on the chemicals theorized to change with acts of NSSI. A homeostasis model suggests that those who self-injure may have chronically low levels of endogenous opioids. There is also a study (Plener, Bubalo, Fladung, Ludolph, and Lule, 2012) which indicates that the emotion-regulation deficits present in those who self-injure may be neurologically based.

*information for this section taken from Understanding Self Injury in Youth, Whitlock and Rodham, 2013

Contagion is also a concern in dealing with self-injury. Studies indicate that many self-injurers also have a friend who self-injures. The Internet creates another source of information and “camaraderie” for self-injurers that may encourage beginning or continuing the behavior through social networking. In the past, group therapy was utilized in self-injury interventions. It has been discovered that the contagion factor often negates any possible positive effects of group therapy.

Please see the Educator Response tab for more information about Contagion.