Self-harm help for parents and carers

What is self-harm?

Young Addaction decscribes self-harm to be any behaviour that causes harm to the self, whether this is physical, emotional, or both. Behaviours that may fall into these categories are; self-injury, restricting diet, over-exercise, internet use, sexual activity, fighting and substance misuse. All of these examples would depend on the context, and, perhaps most importantly, the motivation underlying the behaviour.

How do I know if my child is self-harming?

It can be incredibly difficult to know if someone is self-harming, as this is very often a secretive behaviour. Unfortunately, young people often feel they need to hide the fact that they are self-harming due to fear of being judged, punished or misunderstood. In general, look out for changes in behaviour and mood; perhaps an increase in keeping things secret and them wanting to be on their own. That could, however, equally describe the typical signs that you are parenting an adolescent.

It’s much better, to try and create an environment where your child feels comfortable disclosing information to you, than one where you are trying to catch them doing something that they aren’t happy to share with you.

Why is my child self-harming?

Every individual’s reason for self-harming is different. Broadly speaking, self-harm (in whatever form) is used as a coping strategy. If your child is self-harming, they are most likely using this as a technique to help them manage difficult thoughts, feelings and/or experiences. Therefore, we would never advise a parent to tell their child to stop self-harming.

At Young Addaction, we work alongside young people, teaching them alternative (and less risky) coping skills and strategies. However, it is always the choice of the young person as to whether they want to engage in this; self-harm may be the only thing that is ‘working’ for them currently.

What do I do if my child is self-harming?

This will largely depend on the type of self-harm, as well as the extent to which they are self-harming. In general, try to keep calm and use non-judgmental language (however difficult this may be). Try to avoid terms such as ‘attention-seeking’, as this is likely to make your child think twice in future about asking you for help. Follow their lead; what are they comfortable talking to you about? Would they feel more comfortable speaking to someone else?

In most cases, it would be advisable to seek some extra support. A visit to the GP would hopefully highlight any other current difficulties, as well as supply you with an idea of next steps. If at any time you are concerned for your child’s immediate safety, please call 999 or take them to your local A&E.

My child’s friend is self-harming, should I be worried?

It’s natural to be concerned in this situation; both in terms of the safety of the young person in question, as well as the effect this might have on your child. First and foremost, the safety of your child’s friend must be considered. You may be able to find out from your child if an adult is aware that their friend is self-harming. If not, you may wish to let the school or their parents/carers know. This is likely to be unpopular with your child, however you can explain to them why you have taken that action.

This does not mean, however, that your child is going to start ‘copying’ their friend’s behaviour. This is a myth. Although individuals who have friends or family who self-harm are classed as potentially more vulnerable, there is no evidence to suggest that talking about self-harm raises incidents of self-harm, or that young people see this as ‘fashionable’ and want to follow the ‘trend’. If someone is self-harming, there will be a reason; even if they themselves may not yet understand it.

We’d also recommend that you consider how your child’s health and well-being is being affected by their friend’s disclosure/s. Your child may be very able to support their friend; however if they are their only source of support this can be quite overwhelming. Your child may wish to check-in with you to make sure they are doing the right thing, or ask you to help them report this information to another adult. Understanding that they may be worrying about their friend, or may have questions about self-harm is key.