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Self-harm: advice for parents

Finding out that your child is self-harming can be upsetting and stressful.

With the right help most people who self-harm do recover, but it can take time.

You can help your child by being there to listen and to support them.

Why is my child self-harming?

People who self-harm usually do it to help them cope with difficult thoughts and feelings.

Someone who is self-harming may say it gives them a sense of release or relief from their difficulties. Or that it helps them to feel more in control.

Your child is not harming themselves for attention. People who self-harm usually go to great lengths to keep it a secret.

There’s also no evidence that young people self-harm because of things they see online, or because they know other people who are doing it.

Is my child at risk of suicide?

Just because your child is self-harming doesn’t mean they are having suicidal thoughts.

In fact, people who self-harm often say it’s a way of surviving and coping with their difficulties, rather than ending them.

If your child does have suicidal thoughts it’s important to take them seriously and get urgent help.

The charity Papyrus has advice on how to start a conversation with a young person who is having suicidal thoughts.

Try to stay calm

You may be struggling with difficult feelings like frustration, guilt and worry yourself. But your child needs you to stay as calm and supportive as possible.

Reassure them that they will be OK. Let them know that you accept them as they are and you’re there to support them as they move forward.

It’s not helpful to:

  • Use judgemental language such as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘crazy’ – feeling judged won’t encourage your child to get help
  • Ask “Why?” – your child may know why they are self-harming or they may not. Reassure them that it’s OK to not know

Don’t ask your child to stop

It’s unlikely your child will be able to stop just like that, even if they desperately want to.

If you ask them to stop, it’s more likely that they will stop being open with you and carry on hurting themselves in secret.

Your child is struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings and, at the moment, self-harm is helping them to cope.

In order to stop, they first need to find healthier, more helpful ways of coping.

Talk about the feelings not the self-harm

When you talk to your child, it’s helpful to focus on the feelings behind their self-harming rather than self-harm itself.

Your child may be struggling with a difficult situation, such as friendship problems. Or they may be struggling with feelings like anger, confusion, anxiety or depression.

They need to find new, healthier ways to deal with their thoughts and feelings, and you can support them with this.

For some ideas, watch mental health expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith talking about how to help a young person manage anxiety and how to cope with depression.

You can also help your child to find ways to distract themselves when they get the urge to self-harm.

See some distractions that may help.

Keep talking

Show your child that they can trust you and encourage them to be open and honest with you.

Give them time and space to talk about their feelings.

Try not to let self-harm become the focus of your relationship though. Make sure you’re still making time for fun, positive stuff as well.

If your child won’t talk to you

It can be hard for people to talk openly about self-harm when they are used to keeping it a secret.

Be guided by your child. Look for ‘green lights’ in your conversations when they seem to be engaged and willing to talk.

If you get ‘red lights’, for example if your child is not listening or starts shouting, leave the conversation for another time.

See some more ways to have better conversations.

If they refuse to talk to you, you could suggest that they talk to someone else, such as their GP or a teacher at school.

They can help your child find the support they need.

If they prefer, they could talk anonymously to someone that doesn’t know them.

They could:

  • Chat to us online – our trained advisors can support your child and help them the right help in your area
  • Call Samaritans free on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Text Shout to 85258 and a trained volunteer will text them back
  • Call Childline free on 0800 1111 (for anyone under 19)

Be patient

It will probably take some time for your child to move on from self-harming.

It’s important to let them go at their own pace and to ask for help when they are ready.

In the meantime, it’s a good idea to get some support yourself:

If your child’s friend is self-harming

It’s natural to be worried if your child tells you that one of their friends is self-harming.

You may be concerned about the young person themselves but also the effect it’s having on your child.

If the friend hasn’t told any adults, you could let their school or their parents or carers know.

Your child may feel upset with you but you need to put their friend’s safety first.

Your child may need your support too as supporting someone who is self-harming can be quite overwhelming.

Let them know that you're there to talk if they are worried about their friend, or they have any questions about self-harm.