Practical tips for parents of children who self-harm

One third of 15-year-old girls and 11% of 15-year-old boys report self-harming. In recognition of Self-Injury Awareness Day, we have compiled some practical tips to help parents/ carers support young people who may be self-harming.

1. Focus on understanding the feelings driving the self-harm behaviour

All behaviours are driven by feelings, and self-harm is your child’s way of managing and expressing difficult feelings, including anger, sadness, loneliness or a lack of control over their lives.

Sometimes self-harm may be triggered by a particularly difficult experience, such as bullying, whereas in other cases it may be due to ongoing depression or low self-worth. Self-harm can sometimes become the default way for people to express their feelings.

Many parents respond by focusing on the self-harming behaviour. They may respond by take steps to prevent their child from self-harming, such as encouraging them to stop, monitoring their behaviour or ensuring they’re not left unsupervised.

Although done with the best intentions, this approach can cause tension in the parent-child relationship and escalate the self-harming behaviour.

It is important to encourage open communication around the feelings and triggers surrounding the self-harming behaviour, and to respond with empathy and understanding.

It is important that your child knows that you are approaching the situation from a position of concern. Responding to any self-harm injuries with care and empathy, rather than anger or judgement, can encourage open communication and maintain a positive relationship.

“Oh Amy, your arm looks really sore. Come on, let’s get you a bandage. Have you had a difficult day?”

It may often take a while for your child to open up, so be patient and ensure that your child knows you are there to listen if they want to talk. Sometimes your child may not be able to express how they are feeling.

It can be helpful for your child to have a signal if they are finding things difficult. This could be sending you a blank text message or leaving a particular item somewhere.

2. Accept that you can’t control your child’s behaviour

It can be incredibly difficult for parents to know that their child is hurting themselves and not be able to stop or protect them.

A key first step is to accept that you can’t control your child’s behaviour, however much you’d like to.

You can, however, support your child to make healthy behaviour choices by talking to them about alternative ways to manage difficult feelings, including their urges to self-harm. This will give your child a sense of ownership of their actions and help them recognise that they can make different choices.

Acknowledge that it can be difficult to change our habits and encourage your child to talk through other more healthy strategies that they feel might help.

Possible alternatives could include doing something to distracting themselves, using a punch back to get their frustrations out, or drawing on themselves or using lotion to create similar physical sensations.

It will take practice to break the habit, so don’t expect an immediate change. It may also take several attempts to find a strategy that works for your child so be patient!

3. Talk to your child about the safety risks of self-harming

It is important that your child is aware of the safety risks of their self-harming behaviour and how to minimise these.

Linked to the point above, you can’t control your child’s behaviour but if they are going to self-harm, you can try to ensure they are as safe as possible.

Making sure they have access to First Aid supplies (e.g. bandages, antiseptic cream, a cold compress for burns) and that they know who to contact if they need medical treatment etc. can all help to minimise the risks associated with self-harm injuries.

You can also minimise the risks by limiting access to pills, sharp implements, cigarette lighters etc.

4. Encourage your child to seek professional support

There is a variety of support available, both for young people who are self-harming and for parents.

Speaking to your child’s GP is often a good