Self-injurious behavior refers to the behavior of people who injure their own bodies, which can lead to permanent disability or death. For instance, some people can continuously bang their own heads against hard surfaces, such as walls or stones and lead to a concussion of the brain. Research has shown that some individuals with self-injurious behaviors experience repeated attempts to commit suicide. Causes of self-injurious behaviors may be pathological or non-pathological. A number of children who portray self-injurious behaviors suffer from mental retardation, schizophrenia, autism or organic disability. However, some normal individuals may portray self-injurious behaviors as instrumental behaviors.
Instrumental behaviors refer to those actions or behaviors that individuals portray to satisfy motives. For instance, schizophrenic children, who have been experienced physical abuses from their parents, may bang their heads as an avoidance response to their parents’ abuses. Therefore, such children portray self-injurious behaviors in the presence of their abusive parents, but behave normally in the absence of the abusive parents. Studies show that some individuals may portray self-injurious behaviors even when they are pathologically normal. Therefore, it is necessary for psychologists and physicians to determine the etiology of the self-injurious behaviors for the patients under treatment. Treatment of self-injurious behaviors may include pharmacological techniques or behavioral conditioning or both during the hospitalization of the patient.
Research has shown that the application of insight therapy, tranquilizers and supportive therapy fail to stop the occurrence of self-injurious behavior among the patients. Treatment of the self-injurious behavior has been successful with the use of behavioral conditioning because self-injurious behaviors are instrumental in nature. Behavioral conditioning techniques have been effective in reducing the frequency of self-injurious behaviors. Physicians may reduce the occurrence of self-injurious behaviors significantly through establishing incompatible behaviors, withdrawing positive reinforcement and punishing the patients with the experience of mild electric shocks.
Reinforcement of patients for portraying behaviors that are incompatible with their self-injurious behaviors may increase the frequency of the incompatible behaviors and reduce the frequency of self-injurious behaviors. Examples of the incompatible behaviors include rocking and clapping hands during the time of music. Social reinforcement of the music-appropriate behaviors reduces the rate at which patients emit self-injurious behaviors, which include banging of the head, tongue biting, face-slapping and many others. A differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO) is another schedule of reinforcement that will reduce the occurrence of self-injurious behaviors. For instance, a physician can reinforce the patients for their hand actions other than head banging.
Withdrawal of positive reinforcement, such as mild food deprivation, when the patient emits self-injurious behavior, has also been effective in reducing the frequency of such behaviors to near zero. The patient may stop emitting the self-injurious behaviors so that the physician will not have to remove the food tray. It is necessary for the withdrawal of positive reinforcement to take place immediately the patient emits self-injurious behavior. This will enable the patient to associate the self-injurious behavior with the withdrawal of positive reinforcement. However, this may take a number of months for the self-injurious behaviors to disappear altogether.
Punishing patients with mild electric shocks is another technique of extinguishing the occurrence of undesirable and harmful behaviors. The use of mild electric shocks has been extremely effective in suppressing self-injurious behaviors within a short time. Physicians should remember to reinforce the desirable behaviors and at the same time punish the emission of self-injurious behaviors. Research has shown that the punishment of such patients reduces the rate of self-injurious behaviors to zero or near zero.
In conclusion, self-injurious behavior is an instrumental behavior with a behavioral cause. Therefore, the most effective treatment for self-injurious behaviors is the behavioral conditioning, which enables the patient to adopt the desirable behavior and drop the undesirable and harmful behavior. Punishment and reinforcement will ensure that the patient emits desirable behaviors if they take place effectively.