Self-harm: facts for parents

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Consultant psychiatrist Dr Andrew Hill-Smith tells parents how best to respond if you discover your child is self-harming and where you can find help online

It’s distressing to find out that someone you care about is self-harming. Feelings of shock, confusion, guilt or even anger are common – not surprisingly, given the upsetting emotions this kind of behaviour exposes. 

Young people often sense that these are likely to be their parents' reactions, so they hide what they're up to, so as not to distress. The silence is a sign that they feel ashamed, so it's really important to be as compassionate and non-judgemental as possible. It's hard if you are feeling shaken or alarmed, so take the time to settle yourself.

Self-harming happens for a range of reasons, most commonly as a way of managing high levels of distress or difficult feelings. But it can also be an attempt to communicate unhappiness. Take the time to ask questions and find out what is fuelling the behaviour. 

That said, asking too many questions can backfire, so judge how much you can probe by thinking about your relationship with your child.  

Most people find it scary to ask about suicidal thoughts but it doesn’t put ideas into people's heads. [See also this article on suicide.] You can ask whether your child has thoughts about wanting to die. It's important to assess how risky the situation might be.

‘Work towards open communication about online activity rather than attempting to control it’

You should also try to ask your child about their mood, confidence, anxiety, whether they're eating and what they're doing online. Most advice suggests that it is important to work towards open communication about online activity rather than attempting to control it. You may, though, want to make recommendations.

In fact, many young people find their own solutions to distress and self-harm, with the help of friends, teachers or school counsellors. If you think the risk of harm is high or there are significant mental health problems such as depression or an anxiety disorder, then you may want to ask your GP for a referral to a child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS.)    

What parents can do

There are no right ways to help with self-harm, no easy answers. But a few things do seem to be important:

  • create and encourage positive and supportive relationships, including with family members.
  • be compassionate and don't react with too much alarm.
  • work with your child to find solutions to problems that fuel the distress.
  • be available to listen and, if your child is not communicating with you, try to ensure there is someone else they can talk to.
  • be interested in, and concerned about, their progress.

Self-harm facts

  • Samaritans report that self-harm is the main reason people use their text messaging service. Anyone can send an SMS text message to Samaritans on 07725 90 90 90.
  • Self-harm was only recognised as a clinical diagnosis in May 2013 and still only 15% of those self-harming see doctors. It is a very good idea for a person who is self-harming to see a GP.
  • In many cases, talking treatments will be recommended, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which aims to give young people skills to think differently about their lives, and develop different responses to negative thoughts.

Further reading

Additional information is available from NHS Choices, or Young Minds

The Royal College of Psychiatrists provides a number of leaflets such as Self-harm and young people.

 

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.

First published: February 2015
Updated: ​May 2018

 

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