Self-Harm – How to Support Your Child

Self-harm is when someone intentionally damages or injures their body. It’s usually a way of dealing with or expressing extreme emotional distress. There are many ways people can deliberately harm themselves including cutting or burning their skin, punching or hitting themselves, or poisoning themselves with tablets, liquids or similar. People often try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery.

Things to Look Out For

  • Unexplained cuts or bruises.
  • Keeping themselves covered up or avoiding changing clothes in front of anyone.
  • Being withdrawn from friends and family, self-isolation, not coming out of their room.
  • Low mood, depression or lack of interest in life.
  • Blaming themselves for problems or expressing feelings of failure, uselessness, hopelessness or anger.

Why is Your Child Self-Harming?

It’s important to know why children self harm. Understanding the reasons behind their actions can help reduce any worries you might have. Here are some possible explanations:

  • To reduce tension
  • To manage extreme emotional upset
  • To provide a feeling of physical pain to distract from emotional pain
  • To express emotions such as hurt, anger or frustration
  • To regain control over feelings or problems
  • To punish themselves or others
  • Because they are feeling numb to emotions and want to feel something
  • As a form of escape

How to Support Your Child

Reassure your child. Try to remain positive. Tell them you love them and that the most important thing for you is that they feel better. Avoid language that could make them feel worse and let them know you’re not angry or disappointed in them.

Ask them how you can help. If they say you can’t, don’t panic. Try not to feel helpless. Instead, focus on reassuring them and letting them know you are there if they change their mind.

It’s important that you don’t tell them to stop. Doing so can create a situation where they continue to self-harm but won’t tell you. They may try and hide it more or go to greater and maybe more dangerous lengths to do it.

If your child isn’t engaged in talking to you, find an alternative way for them to communicate. They could leave you notes, send a text message or write on a whiteboard. Over time they may be more comfortable about opening up to you. You can also ask them if they know someone else they might be more comfortable talking to, for example a teacher or family friend.

As hard as it is, don’t focus too much on the self-harming itself but rather what is leading your child to doing it. Try and find anything you feel could be disrupting their life. If it’s not at home, contact the school discreetly to see if they’re aware of any issues. Reach out to parents of friends to see if they might know anything.

There are a lot of things online that can expose a child to these behaviours or encourage them. Suggest reducing time spent on social media or speak to them about what they’re doing online.

Safer Alternatives to Self-Harm

One way to help your child stop hurting themselves is to offer a safe alternative to self-harm that still provides a physical release. Here are some ideas:

  • Screaming loudly
  • Clenching an ice cube in the hand until it melts
  • Snapping an elastic band against the wrist
  • Drawing on the skin with a red pen or red paints instead of cutting
  • Sports of physical exercise
  • Using a punch bag
  • Hitting a pillow or other soft object
  • Listening to or creating loud music

Ask for Help

As well as dealing with the issue at home, it’s important to reach out for help. Your GP is a good place to start, but you can also research local resources like school counsellors and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). At Yorkshire Psychotherapy, we have a range of child and adolescent practitioners.

Make sure you support yourself as well. There is a lot of information online and various communities made up of parents who are going through the same thing. The mental health charity Young Minds also has a parent helpline.

Young Minds Parent Helpline – 08088025544

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