If you have identified or you suspect that your child is self-harming, and you’ve talked to them and offered your support, it’s now time to help them deal with this problem in the immediate future.
Find out about what causes self-harm and what to do about it, and always have this info in the back of your mind when you approach your child about getting help to prevent them self-harming again.
If your child is resistant or afraid to seek help it’s probably because they’re feeling fear, shame or emotional pain and don’t quite know how to deal with it or talk about it. It’s important not to force help on them but you can talk about things that you know about that can help.
A big factor that contributes to the need to self-harm is feeling emotionally overwhelmed. However there are some techniques you can teach your child to help them manage their feelings.
The following strategies to avoid self-harming have been suggested by people who experience this compulsive behaviour. Keep in mind that they may not work for everyone – your child may need to keep trying until they find something that works for them.
Keep things your child uses to self-harm in a locked cupboard or in a box with sticky tape around it. It will delay the behaviour and restrict the impulse by taking away the means to self-harm. This will give them time and opportunity to choose a different or more positive way of coping.
Suggest activities that your child enjoys to help them take their mind off the negative feelings that are making them want to self-harm. When they feel overwhelmed by their emotions, it can be difficult to remember the things that give them pleasure. Your suggestions should serve as reminders of things that they like to do. But it’s important not to press them.
Some activities, such as listening to or playing music and reading, are solitary and so a good way for them to enjoy some space. Solitude is a coping mechanism that your child may need before they are ready to seek out their friends and family again. Some people take a bubble bath, write in a journal, or go for a walk or swim.
Hobbies and going to the movies are other examples of activities they may choose when they are ready to socialise. All these provide distraction and focus that can lift their sense of themselves.
Low risk activities like punching a pillow - still technically self- harm but safer - is an example of diverting negative emotions in a physical way. Another technique is to hold an ice cube until it melts. There is a sense of discomfort experienced but it will not have lasting effects.
Diversion techniques should be planned with a professional. It’s not advisable to support your child with these on your own as there is a possibility of the self-harming behaviour escalating.
Once the urge has passed, one of the simplest techniques for being able to cope is to be aware of breathing. When we panic we breathe faster so a conscious decision to breathe more slowly and a bit deeper has a very calming and positive effect. Often we can immediately feel the benefit of slow breathing but then we forget about it when another overwhelming feeling occurs.
Controlled breathing can be learned and there are mobile phone apps such as ReachOut Breathe that can teach your child how to do this.
Mindfulness can also be achieved through meditation and relaxation techniques. It’s often easier for someone to take you through progressive muscle relaxation or introduce you to meditation or mindfulness.
You can introduce simple meditation techniques to your child through apps such as Smiling Mind.
Physical exercise is also very effective. Running, walking, swimming or any form of physical exercise is positive.
Personal coping strategies
The causes of your child’s self-harm will most likely require support from a mental health care professional for longer-term solutions than those suggested above.
There are also negative coping strategies such as alcohol and drug misuse so it’s important that your child has a range of positive options that they find work for them.