It can be heartbreaking to see a child you love in so much pain that they resort to self-harm. As a parent or caregiver, it's understandable to feel overwhelmed, confused, and powerless. In this article, we will address commonly held fears and misconceptions surrounding self-harm and provide insights on how you can best support your child through this difficult time.
Self-harm is a behavior that some teens use to cope with emotional pain or stress.
Warning signs can include unexplained injuries, wearing long clothing, avoiding social situations, changes in eating habits, or mood swings.
Supporting your teen involves creating a non-judgmental environment, helping them find professional help, and encouraging healthy coping strategies.
Prevention is vital and can include promoting honest communication about mental health, fostering positive behaviors, and implementing effective skills to cope with emotional pain or stress.
We understand this is a challenging and emotional issue, but with the right information and resources, you can help put your child on the path to healing.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is a behavior in which a person intentionally inflicts harm upon themselves without intending to commit suicide. It can take many forms, including cutting, burning, scratching, or hitting oneself. Medical professionals often refer to this behavior as “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI).
When a child or teen hurts themselves, it doesn't always mean they think about suicide or want to die. Recent studies, though, have shown that children and teens who hurt themselves for reasons other than suicide and do it often or for a long time are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and act on them.
Cutting is the most common self-harm method
The most prevalent form of NSSI is cutting, and you may find wounds or scarring on your child's hands, arms, abdomen, legs, or other parts of their body. Children may create deep gashes or several minor wounds at the same location. The child might try to hide their injuries by wearing long sleeves or jewelry to make scars and wounds less obvious. Also, children with depression who feel hopeless, worthless, have trouble sleeping, and don't have much energy may be more likely to join NSSI. Be on the lookout for other subtle signs, such as long periods of being alone, injuries or scrapes that can't be explained, and changes in behavior.
Other forms of self-harm
Self-harm takes many forms beyond skin cutting, including head-banging, hair-pulling, excessive scratching that results in bleeding, and burning oneself. In addition, some children may harm themselves by punching, inserting objects into body openings, picking at scabs, so they don't heal, pulling their hair, burning or grazing themselves, drinking harmful substances like bleach or detergent, or intentionally breaking bones. While some children may engage in self-harm only once, those who continue to do so often hurt themselves in multiple ways.
Myths about self-harm behavior
There are a number of common misconceptions about self-harm that can be harmful and make it harder to help and treat people who do this. Below, we discuss some of the most common myths to be aware of.
|People who self-harm are attention-seekers.||Self-harm is mostly done in secret, and the people who engage in it usually go to great lengths to hide their scars or injuries.|
|Self-harm is only done by girls.||Both males and females can engage in self-harm, and it occurs across all genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds.|
|Self-harm is a phase and will eventually stop on its own.||There are times when self-harm can be a phase and can stop on its own. Most of the time, though, self-harm is a sign of deeper emotional or mental health problems that need help from a professional.|
|Talking to a child about self-harm will only encourage it.||Talking about self-harm in an open, non-judgmental way can help people feel heard, understood, and supported. It can also help them find safer ways to cope with emotional pain.|
Reasons why children might self-harm
There is no one specific cause of self-harm, but rather a combination of factors that lead to this behavior. You might wonder what is it about pain? The answer is simple — physical pain caused by self-harm can trigger the body to release endorphins, creating a sense of calm and relief. Self-harm can also help people forget about their emotional pain, so they can focus on how they feel physically instead of how they feel inside.
For example, many teenagers turn to self-harm as a way to cope with emotional pain or distress. Self-harm can also become a coping mechanism for teens who feel like they have no control over their lives.
Furthermore, some teens may engage in self-harm as a way to fit in with a certain group or to seek attention from their peers. Additionally, teenagers who struggle with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder may also turn to self-harm. That also applies to teens who may have experienced traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, or violence, leading to intense emotional pain and a sense of powerlessness. Self-harm may provide a way to regain a sense of control over their bodies and lives.
Once people engage in self-harm behavior, they might have the following thoughts and feelings:
- “When I self-harm, it's like I'm releasing all the pain that's built up inside of me.”
- “It's like a way to punish myself for feeling like a burden or for making mistakes.”
- “Cutting helps me feel in control when everything else in my life feels chaotic.”
- “It's like a release valve for all the anxiety and stress that I feel.”
- “Sometimes I don't even know why I do it, but it's like a temporary relief from all the pain I'm feeling inside.”
- “It's my way of coping with all the overwhelming emotions that I don't know how to handle.”
- “It's a way for me to feel something when I feel numb or disconnected from everything else.”
Self-harming in children – how to stop it:
Below, we present some effective and helpful ways you can support your child if they are self-harming.
Don't be afraid to talk about it
Have open and honest conversations about the issue, and let the child know you are there to support them. Bringing up the topic can be difficult, but it is important to approach it with a sensitive and non-judgmental attitude and to listen more than you speak. Let the child know that you care about them and that their safety and well-being are your top priorities.
Expect your child to have a strong defensive reaction when you raise the subject with them. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed and try to conceal the scars. As a result, your child may become upset or refuse to talk initially. However, choose a calm, private moment to express your concerns and let them know you are worried about them.
Empathic statements to use
Here are some non-judgmental statements that parents can use to bring down defenses when talking with their children about self-harm:
- “I'm here for you, and I want to help you get through this.”
- “I can see that you're going through a hard time right now.”
- “It takes a lot of courage to talk about this, and I'm proud of you for opening up to me.”
- “I love you and care about you, and I want to support you in any way I can.”
- “I don't fully understand what you're going through, but I'm willing to listen and learn.”
- “You're not on your own in this, I have your back, and we'll get through it together.”
- “I'm not going to judge you, I only want to help you find ways to cope and heal.”
- “I believe in you, and I know you can overcome this with the right help and support.”
What to do when nothing helps?
First of all, remember that it does not make you a bad parent if your child is self-harming. Understandably, you may feel guilty or responsible for your child's struggles with self-harm. However, please keep in mind that, as you can see from the above, self-harm is a complex issue that can't be solely attributed to parenting.
If you have tried the support methods discussed above and nothing helps, it might be time to seek professional help. Encourage your child to come with you to a medical professional to address the underlying issues causing their self-harm. Additionally, make sure that the child is in a safe environment, and remove any items in the home that could be used for self-harm.
If a child is self-harming, limiting access to social media can help their mental health. Exposure to triggering content on social media can worsen their condition. Another great way to provide help is joining a support group. Consider finding support groups or peer groups for your child to connect with others who are going through similar struggles.
Just don't forget that recovering from self-harming behavior is a long process. So, celebrate small wins. Praise progress made by the child, such as going a certain period without self-harming or trying a new coping mechanism.
It's crucial to acknowledge that you're already doing your best as a parent, and the primary focus should be on giving your child unwavering love and support. However, it is equally important to seek assistance from professionals to tackle the root causes that lead to self-harm.
- Frontiers in Psychology. Understanding the Needs of Young People Who Engage in Self-Harm: A Qualitative Investigation.
- The Lancet. Child and adolescent health. Self-harm in children and adolescents by ethnic group: an observational cohort study from the Multicentre Study of Self-Harm in England.
- BMC Psychiatry. Non suicidal self injury and suicidal behavior among adolescents: co-occurrence and associated risk factors.