What to do if your child is self-harming

A new WHO report has revealed a three-fold increase in the number of self-harming teenagers over the past decade. If you suspect your child is one of them, what do you do? By Joanne Mallon

With a headline-grabbing new World Health Organization report revealing that a fifth of 15-year-olds in England self-harmed in the past year, how worried should we be about the state of mind of our nation’s teens?

Charities are reassuring parents that this rise doesn’t necessarily mean that the actual numbers of teenagers self harming is on the increase. It may simply signify that they’re more willing to talk about it. 

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Like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the main message is Don’t Panic

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As high-profile people including Angelina Jolie, Christina Ricci and Miley Cyrus have all openly admitted to self-harming, more young people are becoming willing to admit to it too. 

Counselling psychologist Dr Marie Murphy, who has worked in suicide prevention and self-harm in the NHS and internationally for ten years, agrees: “I think what is clear from this study is that self-harm is more visible, but that does not necessarily mean that it is significantly increasing in real terms. It could mean that it is being more accurately recorded. 

“People are much more willing to talk about their self-harm, although there is still a high level of shame attached to these behaviours, which is a barrier to young people getting help.” 

So if you suspect your child is self-harming, Dr Murphy advises looking out for these signs: 

  • Wearing long sleeves, or covering up more than usual. Avoiding situations where they have to expose injured skin.
  • Being more secretive than usual, not letting parents into their room, locking a drawer that they were not previously bothered about.
  • Self-harm kits: anything small and sharp that is not where it is supposed to be, possibly hidden at the back of a wardrobe or drawer. If the self-harm is burning, look for lighters, matches and candles. Taking many small painkiller overdoses is also categorised as self-harm, so look for empty medication packets.
  • Changes in emotional responses that are significantly noticeable from how they normally are.

Rachel Welch, from Self Harm, has herself experienced many years of self-harm through her teens and into her twenties. She says you need to be aware of what is normal for your child in order to be alert to any changes.

“Remember it’s ‘normal’ for some young people to enjoy their own company, it’s ‘normal’ for some young people to be introverted rather than extroverted, and it’s ‘normal’ for others to be disinterested in things you might typically associate with teen culture.”

Keep your cool

If you think you’ve seen the signs, what next? The experts are agreed that, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the main message is Don’t Panic.

Of course, that’s easier said than done if you think that your child is cutting, burning or biting themselves.

Rachel cautions that keeping your cool is essential: “Don’t shout, don’t judge, don’t project your emotions on them – and don’t try to take control.

“ASK them what they need, what they want and how you can help. Be led by your child as much as possible.”

Marie says that while there is no need to rush to A&E, neither will you solve the problem by ignoring it. “It’s OK to say that the self-harm scares you and that you are worried about them. They are probably scared too and they need their feelings validated more than anything else.”

Self-harm is a coping mechanism to numb pain, in the same way that alcohol and drugs are, so look beyond the behaviour itself and think about what it might be related to.

Where to get help

Don’t take it personally if your child prefers to talk to their friends than their family. Do seek outside help for yourself and your child through your GP or the mental health service CAMHS.

Above all, remember that your job is to be a parent, not a therapist. As Marie says “Love them, accept them and try to keep them safe. Keeping safe can be negotiated with family members when done in a thorough and respectful way. After all, even if they go to hospital, they are still going to have to go home.”