Coping with self-harm: a guide for parents and carers
Self-harm is often used as a way of managing difficult emotions. For a vulnerable young person that is self-harming, it is important to know that they are not alone.
- Take talk of suicide very seriously
Some people who self-harm may be suicidal. If your child speaks to you about suicide, confront the issue in a non-judgemental way and discuss this openly together.
- Don’t let self-harm become the focus of your relationship with your child
Your child is going through a very difficult time, but try to look around and beyond the self-harm through conversation and activities that bring you closer together.
- Try to deal with self-harm in a matter-of-fact manner
Let your child be upfront and open with you, and don’t shy away from the situation. Discuss the facts of the self-harm together, without judgement.
- Let your child know that their emotions are real and important
Your son or daughter needs to be heard and understood. Their feelings are valid and you need to explore these together.
- Remind your child of their strengths and abilities
All children appreciate reassurance about their personal abilities. This is especially true for vulnerable young people. Remind your child about their unique strengths.
- Reassure them that you do not think they are a failure
Whatever their difficulties, make it clear to your child that you support them and love them unconditionally.
- Explain to your child that you want to help but may not know the best thing to do
It’s good, to be honest with your child about your level of knowledge and understanding as a parent. Try to come up with a solution together to seek further help: either visiting the GP or speaking with a counsellor or helpline.
- Work out with your child how to make self-harming more difficult for them
If your child is receptive to the idea, you can explore ways to make it harder for them to access the tools needed to self-harm (for example, storing medication securely or removing sharp objects). This must be a decision that is reached together.
- Watch for signs of bullying or abuse
If your child is unable to explain to you what is triggering the self-harm, lookout for signs that might be leading to this - these could be social or individual factors.
Alternatives to self-harm
As self-harm is helping your child to cope with difficult feelings, it is important to think of other ways that might manage these emotions instead. These can include distraction, stress management techniques, and thinking of alternative methods of discharging extreme emotions.
Sometimes joining a social activity or sports group can be helpful as a distraction, providing a form of social support. Some people also find that putting off harming themselves can decrease or get rid of the urge: in this case, limiting the accessibility of objects that might be used for self-harm (such as pencil sharpeners, knives and medication) may help to delay the impulse.
There are a number of alternatives to self-harming that you can suggest to your child.
- Going for a walk, looking at things and listening to sounds
- Create something: drawing, writing, music or sculpture
- Going to a public place, away from the house
- Keeping a diary or blog
- Stroking or caring for a pet
- Watching TV or a movie
- Getting in touch with a friend
- Listening to soothing music
- Having a relaxing bath.
- Clenching an ice cube in the hand until it melts
- Snapping an elastic band against the wrist
- Drawing on the skin with a red pen or red paint instead of cutting
- Sports or physical exercise
- Using a punchbag
- Hitting a pillow or other soft object
- Listening to or creating loud music.
Explore with your son or daughter what calms and positively distracts them and try some of the suggestions above. This could be something that you do together.
We worked out that if she sent me a blank text, I knew that she needed some company or a cuddle or some distraction. - HealthTalk.org parent interview
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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