Self-harm can be hard to understand, and it can be especially distressing if you think your child might be hurting themselves on purpose.
Lots of us don’t know much about self-harm and this lack of knowledge can make it harder to provide the support and care our loved one needs.
We spoke to Dr Ritu Mitra, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, to find out the truth behind the myths and how you can support a young person who has self-harmed.
Myth one: all people who self-harm want to die
Dr Mitra says that ‘Sadly, some people who self-harm might also experience suicidal thoughts or feelings – but they don’t always come together.
‘Self-harm is usually a way for people to cope and manage when things are difficult – it doesn’t always mean someone wants to die, and someone’s self-harm isn’t necessarily an attempt to end their life’.
Myth two: self-harm is a teenager thing – people will grow out of it
‘People of all ages self-harm,’ explains Dr Mitra. ‘It’s increasingly common among young people and this is concerning. Self-harm is a way of managing distress and it needs to be taken seriously. It’s an unhealthy way to cope, it carries risks, and it won’t address the root causes or the mental health problem of which it can often be a symptom’.
Myth three: people self-harm because they’re attention seeking
‘The truth is, a lot of people hide their self-harm,’ Dr Mitra says. ‘When people unhelpfully say self-harm is ‘attention seeking’, it can make it harder for people to ask for help and they can feel misunderstood and judged.
‘Different people self-harm for different reasons. It’s usually a way for people to cope with difficult thoughts or feelings. You might hear people talking about expressing something that’s hard to put into words, reducing overwhelming thoughts or feelings, punishing themselves, or getting rid of a numb feeling’.
For some people, self-harm is a way to show others that they need help. ‘If a young person self-harms as a way of bringing attention to themselves,’ says Dr Mitra, ‘they always need compassion and support and especially from the health professionals seeing them.
‘It’s OK for them to want other people to know how much they’re struggling. Over time, and with the right support, they can learn other ways to ask for the attention and help they need’.
Myth four: self-harm is always obvious and easy to spot
Dr Mitra explains that there are risk factors that might make a young person more likely to self-harm. These include ‘finding it difficult to express their feelings, experiencing stressful events, or having a mental health condition, for example, depression’.
There might be clear indicators that a young person has self-harmed. ‘A young person might have unexplained marks on their body – or claim to have had a lot of accidents,’ says Dr Mitra.
‘They might have bloodstained clothes or bedding, or you might see bloody tissues in the bin. You might also notice that they’re covering their body more than they would usually – they might refuse to take jumpers or jewellery off, or they might not want to wear shorts or go swimming’.
However, there are also more subtle signs, such as ‘spending lots of time alone, seeming low or aggressive, or becoming more secretive. If you’re unsure, the best thing to do is have an open, non-judgemental conversation with your child’.
Myth five: if I bring up self-harm, it might give my child ideas
Dr Mitra is keen to reassure parents and carers that asking a young person about self-harm doesn’t make them more likely to self-harm. ‘The research shows us that asking people about self-harm or suicidal thoughts doesn’t put the idea into people’s heads,’ she emphasises.
’If you notice something that makes you worry your child might have hurt themselves on purpose, find a calm moment to talk about it with them. You can tell them what you’ve noticed, say that you know it can be a sign that someone has self-harmed, and ask them if they’ve hurt themselves on purpose’.
Myth six: if my child hasn’t opened up to me about self-harm, there’s nothing I can do
‘It can be challenging for young people to talk to the people close to them about self-harm,’ explains Dr Mitra. ‘They might be trying to avoid being judged or told off – or they might be worried that an adult will expect them to immediately stop.
‘It’s important that any injuries are properly taken care of first – if you’re worried about minor injuries, speak to a GP, and in an emergency always go to hospital.
‘You can explain to the young person that you understand that it’s a way for them to manage at the moment, then reassure them that there are less harmful ways of coping, which you can learn about together. Try to listen first, and give young people the choice about whether they’d prefer to chat in person or message you instead.
‘It’s important to try to stay calm when you talk to them,’ says Dr Mitra. ‘Your feelings are valid – but try to find time and space to work through them when the young person isn’t present’.
Some young people might want to ‘practise’ talking about what’s going on. ‘Would they prefer to text NATTER to 85258, for example?’ asks Dr Mitra.
She also suggests there are things you could do together, such as making a self-soothe box or exploring apps like Calm Harm on the Best For You app library. ‘Often there is a need to be patient and try different methods to find an alternative coping strategy,’ says Dr Mitra. ‘Especially if there are things you can do together, to build trust and reassure them that you’re there to support them through this’.