How to address self-harm
How to address self-harm
Tuesday, 30 June 2020
As a parent, hearing about young people harming themselves can be really alarming and difficult to understand. If you suspect that your young person is harming themselves, there is a lot you can do to support.
- Why do young people self-harm?
- Signs to look for if you think a young person is self-harming
- How to have a conversation about self-harm
- How can you support someone who is self-harming?
- Helpful links
Why do young people self-harm?
Despite how common self-harm is, there is no ‘typical’ person who engages with it. Often times, it can act as a coping mechanism for negative feelings. The reasons a young person could be engaging in self-harm include:
- Being unable to communicate overwhelming feelings
- Negative body image (‘hating’ oneself)
- Feeling numb (not being able to identify any feelings)
- Self punishment
- To feel in control
- Provides a distraction from problems.
There is sometimes a perception that young people harm themselves to get attention. In fact, many people who self-harm do so in secret and cover it up. But, even if this is not the case, a young person who is self-harming is in need of attention. It is an indicator that something is not right for them and it is important to talk about it.
Signs to look for if you think a young person is self-harming
Self-harm can take many forms, including cutting, scratching, burning and hitting. There are a variety of indicators that a young person could be self-harming beyond identifying any marks themselves. These include:
- The young person is spending a long time in the bathroom or bedroom alone
- Bloody tissues, plasters or antiseptic around the home (specifically in their bedroom or in the bathroom)
- You notice sharp objects from the home are missing or you find them in the young person’s room
- The young person is wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather (long sleeves on a hot day) which could indicate the covering of scars
- In general the young person seems to be experiencing low mood, or appears angry
- Noticeable physical pain.
It is worth noting that the degree of injury that results from self-harm is not necessarily an indicator of the level of distress of the young person. Any type of self-harm should be taken seriously.
How to have a conversation about self-harm
Parents are often afraid and don’t know what to say to their young person about self-harm which is completely understandable. However, it’s important to know that self-harm and suicidal ideation are not the same thing. Establishing a channel of communication with a young person that is self-harming can be hugely helpful for them. Starting that conversation is difficult, so here are some things to bear in mind:
- Try to be as relaxed as possible. Tell them you are coming from a place of support. Start off by saying “I think you’ve been harming yourself and I want to support you”.
- Let them know that you’re not angry with them for self-harming. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them. Try: “I want you to know that I’m not angry, is there anything I can do to help you?”
- Ask about the injuries themselves to ensure they aren’t in danger of infection, for example: “Are the cuts clean?”.
- Make them aware of the techniques they can try to lessen overwhelming feelings they may have. Find out more here.
- Eliminate any element of shame by adopting a non-judgmental approach and making them aware that they can talk to you anytime about their self-harming (“It was really good to chat with you about this today, maybe we can try to talk again tomorrow?”)
Propose an open door policy. “You must be going through a lot and I’m worried about you. Can we try an open door policy so I can make sure you’re OK?”
- Identify whether the young person is suicidal, by asking them directly. While self-harm is not necessarily a sign that a young person is having suicidal thoughts, the question does need to be asked. Be direct when talking about suicide and again stay calm about what they tell you.
How can you support someone who is self-harming?
Beyond creating a channel of communication with a young person who is struggling with self-harm, you can help them develop their toolbox that they can turn to in moments of distress. This would include a variety of techniques and exercises they can use when they feel like harming. We have included some suggestions here on this article for young people that can assist in managing self-harm.
If you need help now: