Finding out your child is hurting themselves – deliberately, is probably every parent’s worst nightmare.
Would you know what to do if that was your child?
The easiest thing to do right now is to stop reading this article, just brush the topic under the carpet because the thought of your child doing such a thing would be unbearable. But wouldn’t you rather be informed than be ignorant?
Equip yourself and you will be ready in case you are faced with a child who self-harms.
What is self-harm?
Take a look at this list and make a note of what you think constitutes as self-harm:
If you said yes to all of these, then you were right. Once self-harming starts, it can easily become a compulsion. That’s why it’s so important to spot it as soon as possible and do everything you can to help.
Why do children self-harm?
Often, it’s hard to know exactly why some children self-harm but things are definitely tougher for children now than they were 20 years ago.
There is a great deal of pressure on them academically as well as socially. They also have to keep up with the latest trends, music, and films, have the latest video games, wear designers brand and conform to what society dictates. Not to mention, the influence of social media and the pressures children face from the online world.
Children, girls as well as boys, can sometimes look up to those they see in the media and aspire to be like them. For example, they may punish themselves if they are not as thin as those they see on TV. Bullying, being emotionally abused, grieving or having relationship problems with family or friends can all lead to self-harming.
With all this pressure, children are finding it more and more difficult to maintain good mental health. Consequently, confidence in themselves and self-esteem drops. They may have feelings of loneliness, sadness, anger, numbness and a lack of control over their lives.
As parents, we can’t always give our children what they want, whether that be for financial reasons or otherwise. Since our childhood was so different to the way our children live now, it’s not always easy for us to understand what they are really going through. Children are now growing up so quickly and are often expected to be little adults. That’s a lot for a child.
You may wonder how self-harm could possibly seem like an answer to the negative feelings your child is having. It is definitely not the answer but at that time, your child may see self-harm as the only thing that works, temporarily – as a coping mechanism.
I guess, unless you have ever self-harmed, understanding what it is like for someone who does it can be very difficult.
It is not a suicide attempt, nor is it a form of attention seeking.
Self-harm can help your child feel like they have a sense of control, albeit by hurting themselves whenever they want to, because they feel they have no control over any other part of their lives.
Self-harm is also a way of getting relief from emotional pain. Sometimes, when a child feels numb, they long to feel something, even if it is the pain from hurting themselves.
Some children do it to punish themselves because they feel guilty for something they have done.
Whatever the reason, self-harm is not a normal or healthy coping mechanism, which is why we need to be able to spot the signs as soon as possible and do everything we can to help.
Misconceptions About Self-Harm
It is important to get rid of any misconceptions about self-harm. Preconceived ideas about self-harm can be detrimental to providing the support your child might need.
- Only females self-harm – Actually, up to 30% to 40% of those who self-harm are male.
- Self-injury is a suicide attempt or failed suicide attempt – Self-harm is often undertaken as a means of avoiding suicide.
- Only teenagers self-harm – While it is true that the majority of those who self-harm do so during their adolescent years, people of all ages practice self-harm. Cases of self-harm have been documented in children aged seven years or younger and a number of adults engage in self-harm too.
- Anyone who self-harms is crazy and should be locked up – People who self-harm are no more psychotic than people who drown their sorrows in a bottle of liquor.
- Self-harm is just attention seeking – if someone is harming him/ herself for attention then that person clearly needs it – this person is crying out for help. The majority of people who engage in self-harm, however, go to great extremes to hide their cuts, scars or burns.
- Self-harm is untreatable – although difficult to stop, it is not impossible to treat. Your child may use it as a coping mechanism but the right support can help them to find a coping mechanism that is healthy.
- There’s nothing I can do to help – There are many ways you can help. The easiest way to help is by just listening. Don’t judge and be as supportive and understanding as you can. Most importantly, don’t give up. Instead of scolding or looking down on someone for doing this, just let he or she know that one day it’ll be okay.
Recognising Signs of Self-Harm
It is of paramount importance that you ensure an open relationship with your child so they know they can always come and talk to you. Having an outlet and someone to talk to could be the thing that stops your child harming themselves.
If, however, your child is self-harming, would you know how to spot the signs?
Self-harm is practised in secrecy and children will become experts at hiding it. They may wear long sleeves at all times, even in the summer to hide the scars.
They may not want physical contact because the injuries are painful. Children will want to disappear often to carry out their acts of self-harm so they can continue putting on a brave face afterwards.
If you find your child doing these things, it may be nothing but it may also raise some alarm bells.
What should you do if your child self-harms?
Finding out your child is struggling to cope can be a frightening and distressing discovery for parents. So many thoughts go through your head, compounded by feelings of guilt, failure and worry. At this point, you need to stay calm and know that you can help your child.
Listen carefully to what they say – You know your child best so you decide how you want to approach the conversation. However you approach it, stay calm and listen. If you panic, you will only give your child reason to do it even more.
Try to be accepting and open-minded – your child needs to know that you are there for them and that they are loved. Explain that no matter what, they have your support and reassure them that they can talk to you about their distress.
They may not want to talk to you – because they are close to you, they may find it difficult to talk to you especially if they know that it will hurt you to know what they are going through.
The most important thing is that they talk to someone and there are plenty of people out there who can help.
Don’t give them ultimatums – as difficult as it might be to know that when your child is self-harming, you may make the situation worse by giving them ultimatums.
Make sure your child is safe – you cannot follow your child everywhere they go and they will continue to find opportunities to hurt themselves. Although you are not endorsing what they are doing, tell them you know that it’ll be difficult to stop but you need to know they are safe.
For example if they are harming themselves by using blades you could ask, “Are you making sure your blades are clean?” and, “are you making sure you don’t go too far?” As scary as this all sounds, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Seek external help – you could speak to you child’s teacher, they can guide you and provide support at school. Get in touch with your GP and find out how they can help.
Don’t forget to look after yourself – You will be on a roller coaster of emotions; you might feel hurt, devastated, shocked, angry, sad, guilty or powerless.
We know that finding out your child is self-harming can be one of the hardest things to go through. Below is a list of organisations that can help you and your child.