How to address self-harm

How to address self-harm

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

As a parent or guardian, 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 them.

Why do young people self-harm?

Despite how common self-harm is, there is no ‘typical’ person who engages with it. Often, 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.
Close up of a a person comforting another, specifically a hand on their shoulder

Sometimes, there is a perception that young people harm themselves for attention. In fact, many people who self-harm do so in secret and cover it up.
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’s important to talk about it.

Any type of self-harm should be taken seriously.

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 a low mood or appears angry and irritable
  • Noticeable physical pain.

The degree of injury that results from self-harm is not an indicator of the level of distress of the young person. Any type of self-harm should be taken seriously.

Start off by saying “I think you’ve been harming yourself and I want to support you”.

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. This is completely understandable, however, it’s important to know that self-harm and suicidal ideation are not the same thing.

Establish a channel of communication with 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 you’re not angry 

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

Ensure they aren’t in danger of infection, for example: “Are the cuts clean?”.

Techniques for dealing with overwhelming feelings

Make them aware of the techniques they can try to lessen overwhelming feelings they may have. Check out this article for young people who engage in self-harm.

Eliminate any element of shame

Adopt a non-judgmental approach. Make them aware 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

Try: “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?”

Ask about suicidal thoughts

Identify whether the young person is suicidal, by asking them directly. While self-harm is not necessarily a sign of 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, 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.

>> Check out this article for young people struggling with self-harm for suggestions.

If you need help now:

Samaritans Ireland or Text 50808 offer support in the moment when people are feeling distressed.

Pieta House works with people who are engaging in self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Addressing underlying issues:

It can be a good idea to get support to help manage the feelings that can lead to the act of self-harm. Find out more about services available for over 18′s and for under 18’s.

You may also like