Are you worried that your child is self-harming? Read up on the signs to look out for and find out how to get more help…
What Is Self-Harm?
Self-harming is when a person deliberately injures themselves. Self-harming acts vary from person-to-person, but these are the most common:
- Cuts (usually to the arms and back of legs)
- Hitting/punching oneself or banging the head against a wall
- Biting or burning
- Pulling out hair from head, eyebrows or eyelashes (this is known as trichotillomania)
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Many people find it difficult to comprehend why someone would want to inflict pain on themselves but it’s not as simple as that. Self-harming can be very complex and is often used as a way to reduce tension or to release overwhelming, extreme emotions. It can also be used as a way for a person to ‘punish’ themselves or to try and regain control over a situation where they feel incredibly helpless.
Self-harming is often linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Other causes include bullying, low self-esteem or grief. Whatever the reason, it can become a habit and, like all habits, is very hard to stop.
I Think My Child Is Self-Harming
It can be incredibly distressing to think that our child is deliberately harming themselves. If you suspect your child might be self-harming, you may have noticed unexplained fresh cuts or bruises. Other signs of injury to look out for include:
- Scars – these can often appear in patterns due to the injury being self-inflicted and not accidental.
- Bite marks or unexplained marks on the skin.
- Redness to the skin as if it has been excessively rubbed to create a burn effect.
- Bald spots or signs of their hair being pulled out.
- Blood stains on clothing or body.
Of course, all children have accidents and often have the occasional scratch, bump or bruise, but if you’re noticing much more frequent injuries on your child then you may suspect that these are a sign of self-harm.
You may also have noticed behavioural changes in your child. Look out for:
- An insistence on wearing clothes that hide the arms and legs, even if it’s sunny and warm outdoors. They may also refuse to change in front of other people, such as in the changing rooms before and after PE.
- Keeping sharp objects like scissors on their person, in their bag or in their room.
- Unpredictable behaviour, such as mood swings and outburst.
- Low moods and teary moments.
- Confessions of low self-esteem or of feeling worthless, helpless or useless.
- Changes to their eating habits and diet.
- Excessive or obsessive exercising.
What Do I Do?
Firstly, try not to panic. Self-harming, while scary, is common, especially in teens, and there is lots of help out there. Finding out your child is self-harming can be very difficult to process. You can feel shocked, confused and upset, and you may even blame yourself. Try to focus on staying calm and making yourself as open, understanding and loving as you possibly can. It’s important to make your teen feel loved, understood and safe. They need to know that you are there for them, and are able to support them and help manage their distress whenever they need you most. It is important to create an environment where your child can tell you they are self-harming.
Make sure your teen knows that they are not in trouble, they are not to blame, and that you will do what you can to help and support them. Listen to your teen even if what they say upsets you. You can be honest if you don’t know what to do, but always offer them the promise that you’ll listen and do whatever you can to try and help them.
Try to find out what might be at the root of the self-harm. If your child isn’t sure why they self-harm, ask them if there’s anything in particular that’s troubling them. Be a trusted confidante for your teen and encourage them to talk about any issues, no matter how small. Or, you can simply ask outright what they would like you to do to help them.
Together, you can put together some ideas to help them find alternative coping methods when they’re feeling particularly emotional or distressed. These could include:
- Screaming into a pillow.
- Snapping an elastic band on their wrist to help distract and refocus.
- Putting on loud music.
- Talk to someone you trust
- Distraction techniques if they feel the urge: Finding five things in the room with a common factor – for example, five red things or five things that begin with B.
Read our 10 Ways To Calm Down article for tips and more coping techniques.
There are also practical steps you can take to help keep your teen safe. You can remove any sharp objects or potential tools for self-harming from the home – such as scissors or razor blades – and store them away safely. You can also store any medications in a locked cupboard or box.
Ask your teen if there is a specific pattern to their self-harming and see if there’s some way to disrupt or manage it in future to help them break the habit. You can ask your teen to alert you to when they’re feeling like they need to self-harm. You can then work together to distract them from the urge and to find alternative coping methods until the urge to self-harm reduces or passes completely.
There may be some setbacks along the way which can be frustrating for you and your teen but try not to view these as failure. Try to identify what went wrong and adjust your plan – it could be something as simple as trying a different coping technique.
When To Get More Help
If you’re extremely concerned for your child’s safety or fear that you are unable to help your teen, you should contact your GP to get more help. Your GP can assess the situation and refer your teen to a professional who can help if necessary.
If your child requires urgent medical help, call 999 immediately.
More Help For You
More Help For Your Teen Encourage your teen to read more about why they self-harm and how to talk about it, as well as how to get help here: https://ionpadel.com/advice/for-me/mental-health/self-harm/