If you have recently discovered that your child is self-harming, you may feel at a loss as to what to do next. Here we offer an insight into some of the reasons children hurt themselves on purpose, plus how to spot the signs and where to turn for help.
Why didn't I notice before?
The reasons behind self harm - which can include cutting, burning, hitting and poisoning - are complex, and it is very bewildering as a parent to discover that your child is hurting him - or herself - on purpose. You may feel that you've failed your child by not making them happy enough, or that you've fallen short as a parent by missing the signs that something was going wrong enough in their life to make them self harm. You may feel frightened that your child will go on to attempt suicide – and it's true that children who self harm are at around 100 times greater risk than others.
All these feelings are natural, but it can be hard to get inside the mind of a pre-teen or teenager at a time when they may feel that no one really understands them, or that they are mature enough to deal with any difficulties in their lives themselves.
If you suspect your child may have been self harming for a while, try not to blame yourself for not noticing. As with other harmful activities, young people can become adept at hiding the signs: they will often harm themselves in areas of their bodies that aren't publicly visible, or may dress to conceal cuts, scars and burns. They usually self harm in secret, perhaps during the night or at other times when they know they won't be discovered.
Why does my child self harm?
Self harm is usually triggered by an upset of some sort: a family crisis; an argument with a close friend; a break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend; bullying or other trouble at school. Youngsters who are prone to depression, or who have an eating disorder or other mental health problem are at greater risk, as are drug-takers and drinkers. In these cases, judgment is already impaired, and the pressure of any extra problems can build until the only relief comes from experiencing the pain of self harm. Here are some of the reasons children have given for starting to self harm:
'I was being abused and I felt trapped and helpless. I felt I deserved to be punished, but it also gave me something I could control.' Michelle, 15
'The tension from the continual family arguments was unbearable. I felt I was going to explode until I cut myself and experienced feelings of relief.' Ranjit, 17
'My parents and teachers expected much more of me than I felt I could deliver, and the only release from the pressure was to burn myself.' Ryan, 15
'I felt like I wasn't really part of the real world because I'd tried to cut myself off from my troubles. Watching myself bleeding and feeling the pain made me feel like I was real and alive.' Luisa, 13
What can I do?
• If you suspect your child may be at risk of self harming, be on the look-out for uncharacteristically withdrawn, irritable or secretive behaviour.
• Be on the alert if your child dresses in long sleeves and long trousers all the time, even in warm weather, and can't be persuaded to wear anything more revealing.
• Don't forget your child is still your child and will continue to be into adulthood, and don't assume they're at an age where they should be able to solve all their own problems. Your job as a parent and adviser is lifelong.
• If you discover your child has injured himself or herself, dress any wounds and seek medical help if necessary, but try not to fly off the handle.
• Now that you're aware of the problem, try to be sympathetic rather than despairing or hyper-critical. Talk to your child and be a great listener. This means finding time for one-to-one conversations; listening without interrupting or judging; 'reflecting', which means repeating back the key things your child has told you; and empathising.
• Seek family therapy if you are going through any traumatic changes or circumstances at home.
• If you feel too upset, angry or overwhelmed to help your child effectively, ask your GP for advice.
'I first started cutting myself when I was being bullied at school. I was 14 at the time. Mum and Dad were in the middle of a divorce and I don't have brothers or sisters, so I felt like I had no one to turn to. That first time was really scary, but I was amazed at how relieved cutting myself made me feel. It was like releasing emotional as well as feeling physical pain.
'When the divorce was over and we were more settled, about a year and a half later, I thought I could stop self harming before anyone noticed, but it was really hard to give up. Then one day Mum booked for us to go to a spa together as a treat and I couldn't find any reason not to undress. I tried to cover the scars up with make-up beforehand, but it didn't work. Mum saw them and was really horrified. She took me to the GP who put me on antidepressants, but I never took them.
'I'm 16 now and seeing a psychotherapist. I go every week, but I still have a lot of things to sort out and it's taking time. I'm not cutting so often now, only when I feel very stressed. I hide the scissors under my mattress and cut the tops of my thighs when I know Mum's asleep. I know it's bad, but it's a very difficult thing to stop doing. I hope the psychotherapy will sort me out in the end because I really want to be well again.'
Where to find help
Get Connected is the national helpline for young people under 25 and has been providing free,
confidential help for over 10 years. They are a signposting service, supporting young people's emotional well-being and provide a free connection to thousands of services across the UK, ensuring they get the most appropriate help. Helpline: 080 8808 4994; Twitter: getconnecteduk; Facebook: www.facebook.com/getconnecteduk
Childline provides a free and confidential telephone service for children. Helpline: 0800 1111
The Samaritans provide a 24-hour service offering confidential emotional support to anyone who is in crisis. Helpline: 08457 909090 (UK), 1850 609090 (ROI)
National Self-Harm Network Charity supports families of and people who self-harm and has an online support forum.
YoungMinds provides information and advice on child mental health issues for parents and children. Parents' Helpline: 0808 802 5544.
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