Self-harm, or self-injury, describes a wide range of things people deliberately do to themselves that appear to cause some kind of physical hurt. It can still be very hard for parents and carers to know about - or witness - self-harming behaviour in their children.
Cutting the arms or the back of the legs is the most common form of self-harm, but it can take many forms, including burning, biting, hitting oneself, banging head onto walls, pulling out hair, inserting objects into the body or taking overdoses.
Self-harm is a serious problem for teenagers with around 1 in 12 children aged between 10 and 16 carrying out a variety of self-harm behaviours.
Some argue that risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected sex are also a form of self-harming.
Reasons for Self-Harm
A person may self-harm to help them cope with negative feelings and difficult experiences, to feel more in control, or to punish themselves. It can be a way of relieving overwhelming feelings that build up inside to:
- reduce tension
- manage extreme emotional upset
- provide a feeling of physical pain to distract from emotional pain
- express emotions such as hurt, anger or frustration
- regain control over feelings or problems
- punish themselves or others
The feelings or experiences that might be connected to self-harm include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, gender identity, sexuality, abuse, school problems, bullying, social media pressure, family or friendship troubles and bereavement.
Over time, self-harming can become a habit that is hard to stop.
Some Myths about Self-Harm...
“Self-harm is attention seeking.”
“I can’t admit to self-harming, my friends will think I’m crazy.”
“People who self-harm can stop easily if they want to.”
“My parents will say it’s a teenage thing and that I will grow out of it.”
“If I’m not wounding myself too much it’s no big deal.”
“I can’t see a doctor they will say I’m crazy.”
“My parents will be disappointed in me.”
“What’s the point? Nothing helps!”
And Some Truths...
“Self-harm is very private and personal. It is an expression of stress or distress and needs specialist attention.”
“No one will think you are crazy. Most people will confirm they have experienced similar feelings, even if they haven’t carried out the action.”
“Self-harm doesn’t only affect teenagers. It is a sign that is worthy of attention.”
“It’s not necessarily the seriousness of the injury but the fact the injury is happening in the first place that’s important.”
“Self-harm is a coping strategy to distress that is known to doctors and is treatable. Your doctor will not treat you as doing something crazy.”
“There are lots of effective treatments for the causes of self-harm. Take steps to do something about it – there is a point!”
Is my child self-harming?
As a parent, you might suspect that your child is self-harming. If you are worried, keep an eye open for the following signs:
- unexplained cuts, burns, bite-marks, bruises or bald patches
- keeping themselves covered; avoiding swimming or changing clothes around others
- bloody tissues in waste bins
- being withdrawn or isolated from friends and family
- low mood, lack of interest in life, depression or outbursts of anger
- blaming themselves for problems or expressing feelings of failure, uselessness, or hopelessness
It can be difficult to know what to do or how to react if you find out your child is self-harming. Here are some things that can really help:
- Avoid asking your child lots of questions all at once or being overly watchful of them.
- Consider whether your child is self-harming in areas that can’t be seen by discretely checking washing and bed linen.
- Remember the self-harm is a coping mechanism. It is a symptom of an underlying problem.
- Keep open communication between you and your child and remember they may feel ashamed of their self-harm and find it very difficult to talk about.
- Keep firm boundaries and don’t be afraid of disciplining your child. It is helpful to keep a sense of normality and this will help your child feel secure and emotionally stable.
- Seek professional help. First step will be to contact the school or the GP who will provide next steps advice for you on how to support your child.
School staff are able to discuss any concerns you have and will be able to provide you with further resources to support developing your child's well being.
STEM4 is an organisation who produce materials for parents on a number of issues and provide advice on how best to support your child.
Their guide to talking to your child about self harm can be found here.
Young Minds has some great resources for parents and some videos showing the journey of others.
Harmless is a user led organisation that provides a range of services about self-harm including support, information, training and consultancy to people who self-harm, their friends and families and professionals.
NSHN supports individuals who self-harm to reduce emotional distress and improve their quality of life.
Self harm fact sheet contains some useful information for parents and can be downloaded below...