Created in partnership with Barnardo's

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How can I help my child with self harm?

Self-harm is complex - but it’s also surprisingly common. Categorised as behaviour that’s done deliberately to harm oneself, at least 10% of adolescents report having self-harmed. 

Often it’s seen as a way of expressing deep distress that cannot be put into clear words or thoughts.

For parents it can be very distressing too, but know that plenty of support is on hand. Here we have some information and steps that you can take to help your child make a recovery.

Spot the signs

It’s wise to consider whether your child is self-harming if you spot any of these signs:

  • Unexplained cuts, burns or bruises

  • Keeping themselves covered

  • Being withdrawn or isolated from friends and family

  • Low mood, lack of interest in life or depression

  • Blaming themselves for problems or expressing feelings of failure

What are some of the reasons for self-harm?

Remember that sometimes the reasons will be unknown, or it might be a combination of things. Common factors include the following:

  • To manage extreme emotional upset

  • To distract from or express emotional pain

  • An effort to regain control over feelings or problems

  • An attempt to punish themselves or others

  • To elicit care from others

  • To identify with a peer group

  • Self-harm can also be a suicide attempt

What can I do to support?

Open up a conversation

It’s a good idea to organise this around another activity, like a walk or drive, to take the pressure off. Don’t bring up self-harm straight away - just ask them how they feel and if anything is worrying them.

Show that you are prepared to listen 

If your child doesn’t want to talk, ask whether they’lll write you a note or an email. Let them know you are not judging them or putting them down, and that you love them which will never change.

Ask if they would rather speak to someone else

For outside support, the first point of call should be your GP, however counsellors and helplines are also available if you need more immediate help.

And if they do open up

Help them work out which feelings and situations trigger the harmful thoughts, then think of ways to address these directly.  Once they see that long-term solutions are available, they’ll know that things will be different in the future and may feel less need to look for coping strategies now.

Introduce some alternative coping strategies

Self-harm provides a sense of temporary relief, so it often follows addictive behaviour patterns. When this happens, it’s good to bring in some short-term coping strategies as a substitute. 

These include distraction, stress management techniques, and thinking of alternative ways that your child can let go of extreme emotions. 

This could include suggesting that they:

  • Draw, paint, or sketch out thoughts and feelings

  • Write out thoughts or feelings in a journal

  • Wear an elastic band round the wrist and ping it against the skin

  • Call or arrange to meet up with a friend in person

  • Spend time with people who love and value them

  • Write down negative feelings, then rip up the paper

  • Carry a safe object such as a precious stone or stress ball

Get professional help

It’s important to get professional help as soon as possible, particularly if you notice that the self-harm is happening more often.

This is best done through your GP, who can refer your child to a community Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services where an assessment and plan for support and treatment can be made. 

Look after yourself

It’s normal for parents to experience strong emotions so don’t forget to look after yourself, as well as your child. Recovery from self-harm can be a long journey, so try to find time for your own relaxation and support. Remember - the stronger you are are mentally and emotionally, the better you’ll show up for your child.

Don’t give up

Of course, it can be frustrating. But often when your child pushes you away is the time that they might need you the most.

Remember - most young people who self-harm do stop sooner or later.