There are few things more disturbing for parents and carers than finding out that their child is intentionally hurting themselves. Unfortunately, it’s very common, especially among girls and as many as a quarter of all teenagers do it. The most common form of self-harm is cutting or scratching the skin with anything that can draw blood, such as razors or even paperclips and pen caps, but people also self-injure by burning themselves, picking at skin and wounds, or hitting themselves. They often start around puberty.
When a young person develops a habit of cutting their arms it might look like suicidal behaviour, but it actually isn’t. People who self-harm aren’t trying to kill themselves, they are trying to alleviate some emotional distress they are feeling. However, the behaviour indicates a depth of psychic pain that could lead to a suicide attempt. The behaviour is also inherently dangerous because people who self-injure may hurt themselves more seriously than intended or develop infections or other medical complications.
Understanding the drive
It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to intentionally hurt themselves , why people cut themselves or why that injury would come as a relief, as many self-injurers describe it. Some people report that it serves as a distraction from some other intense emotional pain. Others self-harm because they feel deadened inside. They’ve locked down so tightly because of whatever’s going on in their lives that they feel they’re incapable of feeling anything at all. So they hurt themselves in order to feel something.In some cases, self-harm can also become a way of communicating. When a young person is found to be cutting, it’s likely to elicit empathy and concern from parents and other adults. Next time they are feeling desperate, they might use self-mutilation as a way to communicate their feelings.
But self-harm isn’t always a form of communication. Some young people are very secretive about the habit, and are focused only on eliminating their own pain, not sharing it. It’s what clinicians call a “maladaptive coping tool”: even though self-injury isn’t the best way to manage a problem, it might bring temporary relief.
Unfortunately, that relief makes self-injurious behaviour very reinforcing, so a young person may come to rely upon it as a way to deal with their painful feelings. And the longer they practice self-injury the more reinforcing it becomes.
Red Flags for Cutting
If you suspect that your child may be hurting themself but you’re not sure, look for these signs:
- Talking about self-injury
- Suspicious-looking scars
- Wounds that don’t heal or get worse
- Cuts on the same place
- Increased isolation
- Collecting sharp tools such as shards of glass, safety pins, nail scissors, etc.
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts in warm weather
- Avoiding social activities
- Wearing a lot of band aids
- Refusing to go into the school changing room or change clothes in school
What Should You Do? Show You Understand:
Whatever your relationship to a child, discovering they’re self-harming will inevitably have a big emotional effect on you. But however it makes you feel, it’s very important that you stay calm and let them know that you’re there to help and support them.Try not to jump to immediate conclusions or to find instant solutions. And never give the impression that their self-harming has created a big problem for you.
It’s also important to remember that the severity of the injuries doesn’t reflect the young person’s suffering. Something has caused them to self-harm – so it’s always helpful to be sensitive. Saying things such as “the injuries aren’t that bad” or “what have you done to yourself?” could make things worse.
Try not to take it personally or blame yourself either. Just concentrate on showing you understand and want to help.
Talk it Over:
If your child wants to talk about their self-harm and why they’re doing it, sit down and listen. If they’re finding it hard to speak to you face-to-face then why not suggest they put their thoughts into an email or letter instead?If there’s another adult who’s close to them they might want to talk to them instead. Alternatively, ChildLine is only a call away on 0800 1111.
Discover The Triggers:
Try to get to the bottom of what makes your child start to self-harm and think about how triggers can be avoided. If you think these might be linked to time they spend on the internet, take a look at our Advice and Guidance for parents.Addressing the causes is going to be much more effective than removing the methods of self-harm like scissors or razors because anyone who really wants to hurt themselves is always going to find a way.
Tell your child that you understand that self-harm helps them to cope but that this is only a temporary relief. Explain that you want to help them with the problems that make them want to hurt themselves so that they can feel happier in the long run. And see if you can help them find other ways to cope.
Build Their Confidence:
Show You Trust Them:
Your instinct might be to constantly keep your eye on your child, and that’s understandable. But by giving them their own space you’ll help build up their confidence and trust. Try to find a balance between monitoring what they’re doing and respecting their privacy.It is important to make sure that if they’re harming themselves that they are cleaning and caring for any injuries effectively.
Sometimes it’s possible to have an agreement with the child where they come and tell you when they have self-harmed. You should agree not to react negatively but to both talk about it without any expectations on either side.
If they have any current wounds that require medical attention then do not delay going to the hospital.
Choose Who You Tell Carefully:
Help Them Find New Ways to Cope:
Instead of telling them to stop self-harming, it’s often more constructive to suggest alternative coping techniques.There are a few things you can suggest. They might not seem like they will work, but lots of children have told us that techniques like these have helped them:
- paint, draw or scribble in red ink
- hold an ice cube in your hand until it melts
- write down your negative feelings then rip the paper up
- listen to music
- talk to friends or family
- take a bath or shower
- watch your favourite funny film