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 (trichotilliomania), inserting objects into the body or taking overdoses.
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.
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- being withdrawn or isolated from friends and family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.
- Keep an eye on your child but avoid ‘policing’ them because this can increase their risk of self-harming.
- Consider whether your child is self-harming in areas that can’t be seen.
- 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. Here are some ways you could start the conversation.
- Talk to your child but try not to get into a hostile confrontation.
- 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.
- If you feel confident, you can ask the whether removing whatever they are using to self-harm is likely to cause them use something less sanitary to self-harm with, or whether it reduces temptation. This can be a difficult question to ask and if you are not confident to ask this seek professional advice.
- Seek professional help. Your child may need a risk assessment from a qualified mental health professional. Talk to your GP and explore whether your child can be referred to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
- Discovering and responding to self-harm can be a traumatic experience – it’s crucial that you seek support for yourself. It’s natural to feel guilt, shame, anger, sadness, frustration and despair – but it’s not your fault.