• This post is aimed at giving parents some understanding of self-harming

  • Louise Shuttleworth offers advice for those who are worried about their child's self-harming behaviour 

  • If you are worried about your child or teen, you can find a specialist therapist here

This article is focused at parents whose children are aged between 11 and 25 years as this is the most common age to encounter self-harming.

So, what is self-harming?

It can include a whole range of behaviours. These include cutting, burning, swallowing substances, hitting and scratching. These are carried out deliberately and are often concealed from others.

To a teen, the triggers or external stresses could include: feeling isolated, family difficulties, being bullied, low self-esteem, academic pressures, suicide or have witnessed self-harm by someone close to the young person. Self-harming can provide relief from these distressing feelings. It is rare for it to be about wishing to risk life.  

In addition, there is some evidence that opioids are released only serving to give additional sense of relief. Unfortunately, this can turn into a circular habit as every time the discomfort returns, the client wishes to self-harm.

As a parent what can you do?

The leading attachment author, Dan Siegel has devised PART, [Presence, Attunement, Resonance leads to Trust]

My suggestions are noticing yourself in relation to your child. Look for how congruent their responses are with your own felt sense of your child.

How do you notice it is happening?

It may be about noticing behaviour changes. Does your child frequently isolate themselves? Do they seem withdrawn or lack motivation? Perhaps they are avoiding others? Many self-harmers conceal their actions so perhaps they are covering up their body more than normal.

When you do check in with your child, it is important to reflect upon your own triggers. It is useful to be aware that any revelation can evoke a range of feelings including powerlessness, hurt, devastation, shock, anger and guilt. It may be that you wish to explore these feelings with external therapeutic support.

Often there is fear at your reaction or shame so your child’s response may initially be hostile and denying of the situation. For your teen, confiding can feel emotionally risky and there is often a fear that this information may become public property. It is generally not helpful to take control of the situation or force open disclosures. It is really important to notice that the decision to change self-harming does not come from you but from your child. 

What can you do?

There are a few suggestions you may wish to offer but I would suggest being mindful of when to offer solutions. I think that many of us remember receiving solutions when all we want is to be heard.

Tips from a parent to a child could be:-

1.         Distract your mood with things that change your mood

2.         Try the 5 minute rule. This is to wait five minutes and then see if you can wait another five minutes until the urge has passed

3.         Use red pen to mark instead of the area you might cut

4.         Punch pillows/cushions to vent frustrations

6.         Rub ice across the skin where you might cut

7.         Take a fast walk outside

8.         Make a noise 

9.         Writing down and then ripping up thoughts

11.       Elastic bands on wrists and flicking instead of cutting

12.       Phone a friend

13.       Tap into creativity

16.       Do something you are good at

17.       Ask for help

18.       Don’t be too hard on yourself - watch out for perfectionist traits - good enough is okay

Support Routes

It is important to encourage your child to visit the GP. They may sign post you onto various lines of support. Your child will fall under CAMHS, Child and Mental Health Services. There is also the option of suggesting your teen sees a therapist, like me. I also offer parent and teen attachment support called DDP (ddpnetwork.org). For general counselling support, there are many routes including www.welldoing.org.

Further reading

Does social media harm teens' mental health?

Using creativity to overcome self-criticism

How to avoid making things worse for your stressed-out teen

Does my child need therapy?