Realising that your child is self-harming can come as a shock. Why would they want to hurt themselves? It can help to start with learning what self-harm is and the common reasons for it. Then, you can consider practical first steps and understand what you can do to support your child or another young person who is self-harming.
This can help if you:
- know your child is self-harming or you suspect they may be
- want to learn more about self-harm
- want to find out about the signs of self-harm
- need more information about what to do.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm (or self-injury) is deliberately hurting your body but without suicidal intent. It can be cutting or another type of deliberate physical harm. It is a compulsive behaviour. You may not understand it or why your child might be doing it, and it will probably be very confronting. It’s really important for you to learn more about it and be there to support them to find both the cause behind the behavior and more effective coping skills.
For most young people who self-harm, it is a way to cope with painful emotions, thoughts or memories and not an attempt to end their life. The physical pain of self-harm can provide a relief from difficult emotions.
For some young people, self-harm may be happening alongside suicidal thoughts and there may be more happening for them than just the physical behaviour.
Why do teenagers self-harm?
Self-harm is usually a sign of not coping with emotional stress caused by thoughts or memories. The immediate cause can stem from a wide range of issues that people may not be directly aware of or associate with the self-harming behaviour.
These can include:
- bullying in or out of school
- stress and depression
- a troubling family life
- childhood trauma or abuse
- mental health problems.
It can be difficult to understand why your child has resorted to self-harming behaviour, and it’s important to listen and understand rather than judge.
Some reasons that young people have put forward to explain their behaviour include:
- trying to express strong, complicated or hidden feelings
- proving to themselves that they are not invisible
- feeling in control
- getting an immediate sense of relief
- communicating a need for support (however, not attention seeking).
Whatever the reason, if your child is self-harming, it’s important to get professional help from a GP or mental health service to help them recognise why they are doing it and learn new skills and behaviours for managing their compulsion to self-harm.
Things to look out for
It can often be hard to spot the signs of self-harm as many people will try to keep them hidden. Sometimes you’ll notice unexplained injuries but often it’s changes in normal behaviour that you’ll see. These include:
- wearing long sleeve clothes in hot weather or avoiding swimming
- hiding clothes or washing separately
- being secretive about feelings
- strange excuses for injuries
- changes in eating, sleeping and communication.
Because the behaviour is often hidden, the signs may not be obvious. To give some perspective, for every teenager that goes to a youth health service for self-harm, there are nine others in the community who have self-harmed. This is why it’s important to keep an eye out for any signs that your child may be thinking about or has already self-harmed.
You may also need to talk to someone about how you are feeling about what is happening for your child. Your GP might be your start point or a counsellor. Looking after yourself is also important at this time so that you can offer the non-judgemental support to your child.