Self-harm involves the act of doing something to cause harm or omitting to do something which in turn may cause harm (such as not taking prescribed medications).
There are many forms of self-harm. There are many reasons why a young person may engage in self-harm and each individual episode of self-harm may have a different trigger or reason. The most important thing to know about self-harm is that it is purposeful and meaningful; it serves a need or function.
Self-harm can be a very secretive behaviour as if often associated with feelings such as guilt and shame which can make it hard for someone to share how they are feeling and what they are doing.
Here are some signs to look out for:
- Unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns on the body. These marks could be anywhere on someone’s body.
- Unexplained blood stains on tissues, sheets or clothing.
- Keeping themselves fully covered at all times, even in hot weather.
- Self-loathing and low self-esteem; blaming themselves, thinking they’re not good enough or expressing a wish to punish themselves; making statements of worthlessness or hopelessness.
- Becoming very withdrawn and not speaking to others.
- Unusual weight loss or weight gain, or changes in eating habits. A young person may try to hide this by wearing loose clothing or being secretive about eating.
- Evidence of vomiting in toilets, wash basins, showers or baths (drains may become blocked).
When a parent/carer learns that their child has deliberately hurt themselves it can be a huge and devastating shock. You are very likely to experience confusion as well as anxiety, guilt, anger and/or sadness. The young person will probably be struggling with the discovery too.
Your emotions could lead to thoughts and actions that are unhelpful and so it’s best to get through the emotional high and low points before trying to make sense of what has happened and before seeking to communicate anything more than love and care. However, try not to be too hard on yourself if some of your emotion is ‘unleashed’. We are only human, after all.
You might be tempted to make a variety of assumptions about your child now that the self harm has come to light.
“The young person wants to kill them self!” Most self-harm behaviour is not suicidal and does not mean a young person wants to die. More often than not they are doing the best they can, at that time, to cope with distress.
“I cannot manage this!” Yes you can. Parents/carers are usually far more capable and resilient than they believe themselves to be. No one knows your child better than you and no one has greater experience of nurturing them. Much of the best parenting comes from the ‘heart’.
“The Young person is an attention seeker!” Almost all children (and many adults!) are at times. Unfortunately a minority of children do use deliberate self-harm as a desperate attempt to gain attention. However, most will have wanted to keep the self-harm secret. If a child does appear to be desperately seeking attention the self-harm and the child’s emotional wellbeing is still, of course, a cause for concern. There will be nothing to gain through being blameful.
Self-harm is an increasingly common issue in the lives of our children. Whereas in the past self-harm was usually ‘taboo’, it is now more acceptable and, in some circles, is even valued. The wounds and scars can, unfortunately, be seen as being an important part of a group’s identity. When this is the case, the child might be reluctant to ‘let go’ of self-harm.
“The young person is mentally ill!” It’s possible but experience tells us it is doubtful. In the vast majority of cases self-harm is a behavioural feature of an emotional problem. While still of great concern, a mental illness is different to an emotional problem.