Coping with self-harm: a guide for parents and carers
Self-harm can serve a number of different functions, which vary from person to person.
Self-harm can be used as a way to:
- manage extreme emotional upset
- reduce feelings of tension
- provide a distraction from emotional pain through experiencing physical pain
- express emotions such as hurt, anger or frustration
- temporarily escape from current difficulties
- attempt to regain control over feelings or problems
- punish themselves or others
- elicit care from others
- identify and bond with a peer group
- attempt suicide
What makes a young person vulnerable?
At least 10% of adolescents report having self-harmed in some way. Young people may experience challenges during their formative years, and a number of factors can make them especially vulnerable to self-harm.
The early and teenage years can be both challenging and isolating for young people.
Individual factors which increase the vulnerability to self-harm can include: depression, anxiety, low-self-esteem, hopelessness, poor problem-solving, impulsivity, eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse and bullying (e.g. because of race, sexuality or other issues).
Family life can make a substantial difference to a young person’s mental wellbeing.
Family factors which increase the vulnerability to self-harm can include: mental health difficulties in the family, poor parental relationships, drug/alcohol misuse in the family, unreasonable expectations, conflict between the young person and parents, excessive punishments or restrictions and a family history of self-harm, abuse or neglect.
The social setting and environment that a young person occupies can have a strong influence on their well-being.
Social factors which can make a young person more vulnerable to self-harm include: difficulties in peer relationships, bullying, peer rejection, abuse, availability of methods of self-harm, friends who self-harm and media and internet influences.
Possible future problems
Self-harm can be a serious problem - and repeated self-harm is common following a first episode.
Depending on the method, self-harm has the potential to lead to serious physical damage, such as permanent scarring and the medical effects of a dangerous overdose.
Self-harm may be linked to other problems including: depression, anxiety eating disorders or drug and alcohol use, for which specific treatment may be required. Individuals who have self-harmed are at higher risk of suicide than other young people, although the risk is still low.
For these reasons, it is important to tackle self-harming behaviour as early as possible.
Don’t ever be ashamed of talking about self-harm... I guarantee there are 50 other people in the same boat.
HealthTalk.org parent interview
If you’re hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin … stops the feelings in your head.
HealthTalk.org parent interview
This content has been adapted from “Coping with self-harm, a Guide for Parents and Carers, produced by University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research in association with:
Royal College of Nursing
Royal College of Psychiatrists
Royal College of General Practitioners
and funded by the National Institute for Health Research
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