Self Harm UK says it so well,
“Let’s get one thing straight right here: self-harm doesn’t feel nice, it just sometimes feels better than the emotional pain it’s trying to hide. In reality, it doesn’t even do that; not really. Self-harm isn’t nice, the person you care about isn’t hurting themselves because it feels good, whatever they may say.”
Self Harm UK explains,
“When someone has the urge to harm, they may feel as though they are numb and not able to feel pain; this is because of the emotional intensity they are experiencing in that moment.”
Always seek advice for supporting children and young people who are self-harming
I self-harmed, and have worked closely with children, young people and adults who were, or had been, self-harmers. The youngest was 8 years of age.
One young woman was in a setting where I worked. She would come seeking help. Some of the other staff felt she should not be ‘enabled’. I would sit with her. In time she would let me tend her wounds. It was profoundly humbling to be trusted by someone in so much physical and emotional pain, to sit and dress their wounds.
(ALWAYS SEEK PROFESSIONAL INFORMATION, ADVICE AND SUPPORT AS WELL)
- Always take self-harm SERIOUSLY; it is not ‘just attention-seeking’, as some will tell you.
- Try not to be hysterical, or show your fear or frustration in front of the child or young person.
- Take a few deep breaths; ground yourself so you can be calm and feel like safety for them.
- Check if they are OK. Just be with them. Offer to hold them if it feels natural to do so.
- Avoid immediately directly addressing the self-harm. You are not ignoring it. They know you know!
- Resist, at the time or in the direct ‘aftermath’, digging around to find out what is going on for them. They will be feeling ashamed so may come out ‘fighting’ or want to get away to hide from being ‘found out.’ Shame could make it much worse.
- Where needed, OF COURSE, get medical help and safety planning advice.
- Get educated ASAP. You will be a great source of compassion and comfort if you know how to proceed and where to go for support for yourself, as it’s REALLY, REALLY TOUGH FOR YOU TOO. (See the links below. Seek advice from a couple of organisations, not too many or you will get overwhelmed.)
- Make sure you have bandages etc. freely available and can discreetly organise the disposal of them.
- Get clear advice on any POISONS and always get medical input if you have ANY CONCERNS.
- For alcohol or drug overdoses do the same. Have a few simple facts about what to do available for you, and your child, in case they accidentally do it, then panic as you are not around.
- Clear your diary and be around more but not ‘in their face.’
- Go slowly. Make a joke of how annoying you must have suddenly become to them, especially as they may be feeling a bit too ‘watched.’ If you go over the top, hovering about, there’s a chance you won’t be able to keep it up. And they won’t necessarily like or trust it! (Various complex scenarios with my son taught me it’s better to name the annoying ‘elephant in the room’, especially when it’s you!)
- Put a simple safety plan in place. As much as you can, work with them on this in a constructive, curious way (GO SLOWLY) so that they are involved in keeping themselves safe. Not to ‘make them responsible’ for it. Rather, to show how much you get that they don’t want to live this way and trust that safety is really what they are craving
- Work on yourself, so you can truly believe you will get through this. Decide that this is not a ‘forever’ situation.
- ONLY inform people who really need to know in order to keep your child safe. It can be tempting when we are scared and overwhelmed by it all to tell everyone.
- Create a system with your child for how they will let you know when they are feeling overwhelmed. Something small and simple. Maybe they leave a shoe outside their bedroom door, text a sad face from their room. Let them decide.
- Getting them to ‘talk about it’ could make things worse. (When I was anorexic, the wrong word or tone of voice or facial expression could make it 100,000 times worse. In the midst of self-harming you are hypersensitive to all these things.)
- Be guided by your child, but trust your instincts too. Self-harming is their coping mechanism to numb their emotional pain. Giving that up is not going to be easy as it means feeling feelings, and losing something that has worked for them.
- Safety trumps everything but where possible go at their pace.
- Let your child explore additional support they might like. A doctor may refer them to Child and Adolescent Services but if they don’t want to go, they won’t. Bit by bit, look at alternatives such as dance, music, art therapy or something else. ‘Vet’ the therapist for expertise around working with self-harm and possible early trauma. Again, trust your instincts.
- Be aware that secrecy is often part of self-harm. This may take the form of hiding things, denying the obvious and seeming to deceive you. It is NOT personal.
- Alternatively, the signs of self-harm can be clearly visible as sometimes there is a strong push to show the internal emotional pain to others. It is not always a logical choice, so try not to fathom it out.
(As someone who wore their painfully thin body for all to see, it was a complex mix of wanting others to see my pain – feeling it might ‘look good’ in some way – just being very confused in the midst of it all.)
- Repeated binges and severe overeating
- Purging through vomiting or taking tablets to instigate severe diarrhoea
- Excessive alcohol use
- Repetitive physical risk-taking behaviours, e.g. jumping off high walls, driving, cycling, scooting dangerously fast, provoking fights with much older, bigger children…
- Dangerous relationships
- Ingesting poisons
- Skin gouging
- Hair and eyelash pulling
- Head or other body parts banging
There are undoubtedly many, many more ways. Some are very subtle. I have to stop here as I’m feeling slightly triggered and ill just thinking about them all. This may be because some are all too familiar to me.
Key to it all is support for YOU, YOUR CHILD and safety planning. Whilst also being clear that a ‘self-harmer’ does NOT have to be what, or who, your child is.
See my other blogs:
- ‘My beautiful best beast of a friend, anorexia’
- ‘What lies behind such a huge increase in girls self-harming?’
(Similar organizations often operate in many other countries. A search on ‘support for children who self-harm’ should bring something up. Otherwise these LINKS have universally useful advice.)