Finding out that your child is self-harming can be an incredibly upsetting experience. It can be difficult to know what to say and how best to approach the situation. Knowing how to respond effectively to your child’s self-harm is vital in reducing the child’s sense of being overwhelmed and feeling that they need to self-harm.
There are some steps parents can take to support their child both in the short and longer term:
- Try opening up a conversation about what is going on for the child – While the parent may understandably have lots of questions, it is important to bear in mind that the child is going through a difficult time and may find talking about their self-harm overwhelming. It may be therefore more helpful to find out about how they are doing without inundating them with lots of questions.
- Stay calm and non-judgmental – If a child is self-harming, it is often a sign that something in their life has become too difficult to deal with. It is important to remember that the child is not doing this for attention, but it is their way of letting out the pain on their terms. If the child decides to open up, try to focus on listening, showing empathy, and curiosity about what it is like for them, rather than trying to ‘fix’ things right away. The child may just want their parents to listen and understand how they are feeling.
- Ask your child if there are things that would help them cope with the urge to self-harm – It is important to remember that different things will work for different children, and that what helps will usually depend on the feeling the child is trying to manage. However, some helpful strategies to consider may include:
- Making and using a self-soothe box (follow this link to find out more about how to create a self-soothe box https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyfgodSSdV4)
- Writing down how they are feeling in a journal
- Listening to loud music
- Getting active e.g., doing exercise, going for a walk outside, or taking the pet for a walk if they have one
- Talking to someone like a friend, family member or calling a helpline
- Engaging in a hobby that helps them distract themselves and feel calm, e.g., painting, drawing, watching a favourite TV programme, or playing video games.
- Using a phone app like Calm Harm to give them prompt access to different strategies they can try when feeling the urge to self-harm.
- Encourage them to do the daily things that enhance their wellbeing – This includes getting up at a regular time, eating a balanced diet, doing exercise, spending quality time with loved ones and getting enough sleep. Limiting screen time is also something you might need to consider.
- Keeping an eye on the child without making them feel policed – While monitoring the situation and checking in with the child is a good idea, feeling that they are being watched over is likely to increase the child’s feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame. It may therefore be helpful to give them some space when it feels possible, and they need it.
- Seek professional advice or help – Reaching out to your GP and asking for their advice may be a good first step, even if the child refuses to talk to them. It may also be beneficial for the child to speak to a mental health professional, like a counsellor or therapist, if they are willing to do so, who can guide them in making sense of what they are feeling and work with them to find new ways of coping.
Remember that you and your child are not alone – lots of children and young people go through this and come out the other side with different ways of coping with their feelings.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.