Supporting a child with self harm

Supporting a child with self harm can be highly stressful and frightening for parents, and distressing for the child.

Here we look at signs of self harm, and how we can support the parent who is supporting a child with self harm.

We will look at:

– why it happens
– what the warning signs are
– what you can do to help

Self Harm is actually very common in children, and types ranges wildly. Here are some examples of self harming behaviours – some might surprise you.

❗️Compulsive picking of scabs
❗️Pulling out hair
❗️Scratching
❗️Digging fingernails into skin
❗️Punching walls/doors/windows
❗️Banging head against hard surface
❗️Getting into fights to feel pain
❗️Burns
❗️Self-hitting
❗️Cuts
❗️Poisoning

Self Harm is often the child’s way of trying to cope with feelings of overwhelm – caused by deeper issues in their life, or emotional well being.

There is a common incorrect belief that self-harming children are using the behaviour to get attention – however the majority of self harmers actually hide their behaviour for those around them. Common areas children who are hiding their harming are upper thighs and tummies.

There are some children who will harm more obvious areas of their body – arms, legs, hands – but it is important to remember that it is not attention seeking, but a cry for help.

Signs of possible self harm are:

⚠️ Covering areas of the body unusually (long tops in summer, refusing to change near people)
⚠️ Issues with changing rooms at school
⚠️Physical evidence – cuts which won’t heal, unusual bruising, burn marks, scratches
⚠️ Bald patches

You can also look for emotional signs of distress:

⚠️Depression, tearfulness, low moods
⚠️ Becoming withdrawn and isolated
⚠️ Unusual eating habits; sudden weight loss or gain
⚠️ Low self-esteem and self-blame
⚠️ Unusually disrupted sleep patterns
⚠️ Drinking or taking drugs

Self-harm is common, but it always indicates a child in emotional crisis.

Supporting a child with self harm – what can you do to help?

If you suspect your child may be self-harming it is essential you seek professional support to address the underlying issue causing the damaging behaviour.

Waiting lists for support are long, and the earlier you get into the queue the better – so even if you have only just found out your child is harming, make an appointment with your GP to discuss.

Don’t force your child to go to the GP with you – they may be scared. If your child won’t go you can still speak to your doctor and get a referral started.

You can also help at home:

✅ Don’t try to ‘fix’ the issue, instead try to listen and understand what they are saying

✅ Get support for you! You will be frightened, and your child is not the right person to show your fears with. Talk to a friend, family member or professional who will not get involved, but be there for you when you need support

✅ Talk about safety. Self harming is compulsive, and some methods (poisoning for example) and more dangerous than others. Many professionals advise gripping ice to create the sensation of pain without causing harm. Other methods include ripping card, scribbling, viceroys exercise and relaxation methods. Check with your professional what they suggest.

✅ Don’t tell anyone who doesn’t need to know. Children can feel embarrassed and ashamed. We want to make them feel safe to talk to us.

✅ Talk about triggers. If you know what types of events or emotions are likely to cause overload you can make sure you are there to provide support and reduce the compulsion to harm

✅ Don’t make your child feel bad or guilty. The chemicals released in the body when harming can be addictive, and are often replaced with guilt anyway. Your child needs will not be helped by feeling your disapproval

✅ Show your child you trust them. Ask them to tell you if they have harmed, and agree that you will not respond negatively.

✅ Show your child how to clean and care for wounds. Infections from wounds cause scaring and can often be more dangerous than the act of harming itself

✅ Re-enforce that there is nothing wrong with your child. They are feeling overwhelmed and you love them just the same. Talk about getting through the challenge together.

✅ Police other people. Sometimes well meaning friends or relatives believe their input is of value and approach self harm incorrectly. Do not be afraid to step in and refuse to allow interference from others.

❤️ Most of all open up opportunities to talk – your child may not always engage, but when they do you will have a positive impact on their wellbeing.

If you are considering private support for your child, you may find the outcomes of coaching useful. You can read the article HERE

For advice and support with child self harm please visit your medical professional. You can also get a parents guide HERE

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