Avoiding pain is one of our most basic survival instincts.
It keeps us from putting our hands in the fire, makes us handle sharp objects carefully and causes us to swat mosquitoes off our skin.
So why do some kids hurt themselves on purpose?
Many psychologists say that lately they are seeing increasing numbers of adolescents engaging in "parasuicide," or what is commonly called self-mutilation.
"There's no doubt that self-mutilation is on the rise," says Mary Pipher, who wrote "Reviving Ophelia," a book about adolescent problems. "I hear that wherever I speak, and I get mail about it. Where the increases are coming from is where kids are more stressed. They have more stressors and fewer coping techniques - and that's the recipe for self-mutilation."
What is parasuicide? In short, it's when people hurt their bodies without meaning to kill themselves.
"I burned myself with lighters and candle wax," says 16-year-old Stephanie, who started hurting herself when she was 13. "I also carved on my ankles and wrists with safety pins, razor blades, kitchen knives and little needles."
Why do self-mutilators do it? Because they hurt so much on the inside that they respond by hurting themselves on the outside.
"These are attempts to cope with intense painful feelings," explains Martin Goldstein, a child psychologist Skokie, Ill.
Often, Goldstein says, people who hurt themselves do so because they haven't been taught that their feelings are OK. "The person learns to distrust his or her own read on things."
Kids begin to believe there's something wrong with them because they have "wrong" feelings. When the inner pain gets too great, causing outer pain temporarily relieves the stress.
The solution? "Seek help," Pipher says, "and the sooner the better, before it becomes a habit." Those who work with self-mutilators work on the source of the inner pain and teach coping strategies that replace hurting oneself.
Pub Date: 12/31/98