Self-Harm Is Not Uncommon in Children – 5 Things You Can Do To Help A Self-Harming Child

A razor resting on a sheet of paper with red 'blood' drawn by it - Self-Harm Is Not Uncommon in Children

You know as a parent that children can struggle with a wide range of issues and experience many of the same mental health challenges that adults face.

However, you may not have heard that self-harm can be quite common in children.

It can be very frightening to discover that your child is self-harming, but there are things you can do to help.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is a condition where a person physically hurts themselves on purpose. Many people associate self-harm with cutting, but it can take many forms.

For example, self-harm could be through:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Scratching
  • Hitting
  • Hair pulling

However, what self-harm is not is an attempt to commit suicide. Generally, the intent is to create pain, not to end one’s life.

Why do people self-harm?

It’s distressing to think that anyone would intentionally hurt themselves, especially a child you love. However, the reasoning behind self-harm is much deeper than one may suspect.

Often individuals who self-harm are struggling with other mental health issues such as depression. In other cases, a person self-harming may feel that this is the best way to cope with their challenging and disturbing thoughts and feelings. In fact, for some, self-harming helps them focus their attention away from their deepest and most painful emotions. For others, it can be a way of showing on the outside the pain they are feeling inside. For some, self-harm allows them to feel something, rather than the numbing emptiness they are experiencing.

However, self-harm is a complex topic, and this is far from an exhaustive list of the reasons why someone might intentionally harm themselves.

Self-harm and children

Just as with adults, children and teens often struggle with confusing or distressing emotions. They may feel that that the only way to get rid of those feelings is to self-harm.

Some of the problems children might struggle with include:

  • Relationship problems, such as a break-up
  • The pressure to perform at school
  • Unstable home life
  • Rejection by peers
  • Not feeling in control

Approximately one out of five children in the UK, between the ages of 11-19, has self-harmed; both girls and boys. However, the rates for girls are much higher, with one in three girls self-harming.

5 things you can do to help a self-harming child

Stay calm

Of course, for any parent, the knowledge that their child is intentionally hurting themselves is distressing. And, when you initially discover that your child is self-harming, you might feel a strong sense of anxiety, even panic. However, it is essential you remain calm. Rather than reacting immediately, and maybe confronting your child, give yourself time to think so you can respond more appropriately.

Avoid reacting harshly toward your child. What they need from you are strength and compassion. What they don’t need is your judgement. They know that there is a stigma around self-harm. Being judgemental and critical won’t help at all.

Seek to understand

The second thing you can do as a parent is to try to understand why your child self-harms. Learn the back-story.

Some things to consider include:

  • When did it start?
  • How long has your child been self-harming?
  • What was the event or series of events that triggered the self-harm?
  • How did your child learn about self-harm (friends, social media, etc.)?

As you have these discussions with your child, try to keep an open mind. It’s not hard to imagine anybody having difficult emotions or feelings. Many people, perhaps even including yourself, use harmful coping mechanisms to deal with such issues. While self-harm is, clearly, an unhealthy behaviour, comfort eating and the use of recreational drugs or alcohol can be just as damaging, if not more so. But, with adults, these do not carry the same social stigma. Often, people use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as these because they believe they are the only strategies available to them.

Show your child that you will support them

Make it clear to your child that you still love and accept them, and that you will support them in getting the help they need. Many people who self-harm fear the judgement and rejection of others, so it important that you show them acceptance and understanding, not judgement and criticism.

Remember, offering acceptance and support does not mean that you are approving of your child’s behaviour. What it does mean is that you still love and value them and that you are willing to work with them through this troublesome time. Show to your child that you want to be there for them and that you love them.

Educate yourself about self-harm

The first time you discover your child is self-harming, it’s very frightening and can feel overwhelming. However, as we have said, self-harm is rarely life threatening and is not directly linked to suicide.

Take time to learn more about self-harm so you can better understand your child. Our resources page will get you started.

Consider getting professional help

Self-harming is always significant, and it might be helpful to consider getting professional support. Counselling can help your child understand what is behind their self-harming and find better ways to manage their emotions. It will give your child a space in which they can work through some of thedifficulties they are facing, finding better ways to deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and other issues. Instead of using self-harm to cope, they can learn positive coping skills that they will be able to apply throughout their lives.

You need support too

While your first thought is undoubtedly for your child, you need support too. You could reach out to other parents in similar situations or join a support group. You could also consider counselling for yourself. Counselling can offer a place where you can express your fears and anxieties, knowing that what you say stays in the counselling room.

While self-harm is a serious issue which you should not ignore, it’s unlikely to be life threatening, and there are things you can do to help and support your child. Self-harm is rooted in whatever emotional struggles your child is experiencing and psychological problems with which your child is struggling. Professional help might make a massive difference to both you and your child.

Image by Iain Watson via Flickr (cropped).

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