Nothing is more distressing than learning that your child is self-harming. Self-harm can be a way for your child to cope with or express overwhelming emotional distress. This can be hugely upsetting and worrying for parents and carers.
Self-harming can look like:
- Cutting or carving the skin.
- Pulling out their own hair.
- Burning themselves.
- Biting or hitting themselves.
- Picking skin or scabs so they do not heal.
- Banging head or body parts against wall or floor.
- Placing themselves in dangerous situations.
self-harm occurs for a few reasons:
- To be used as a soothing and calming mechanism.
- Due to social anxiety and or bullying.
- Inability to communicate.
- When there is a dysregulation in emotions.
- To feel a sense of control.
- To relieve unbearable tension or stress.
- A distraction from intrusive thoughts.
“Often the first response is trying to stop the action from occurring again. This may not always be possible. Finding help and support is sometimes not easy and at times it can almost seem impossible“
Do’s and the Don’ts
It is important to let your child know that they are not in any trouble. Let them know that they can tell you when they have or if they feel a need to self-harm at any time. Never react negatively and always listen without judgement. This is important. Your child needs to feel safe enough to come to you if their self-harming goes too far. They need to know you will not be upset or angry with them. They have a fear of upsetting you and they often feel like a failure and not worthy.
We need to be their safe space no matter what they have done or are thinking of doing. That doesn’t mean that internally we are not overwhelmed with emotions and fear. It just means we need to pull it together until they are safe.
I unfortunately have first hand experience.
I know this because I was this parent. It took an amazing amount of self-control to almost be casual about self-harming. Now if I find a knife, I ask my child if they need help with wound care first. Then, later we sit down and chat about some of the things they could do instead. We also have the support of a psychologist and psychiatrist. And slowly the self-harming incidents are becoming less and less.
Don’t be fooled though. The road is long, full of obstacles and there is no one path for all. Identifying why there is a need to self-harm is step one.
We had to take preventative measures for a short period of time. The wait for assistance seemed like an eternity. We hid all sharps (knives. scissors etc) and placed medication in a locked box. It was also important that we gave our child access to alternatives. We used simple fidgets and weighted blankets. It could even be a journal to document feelings.
Our saviour was actually a simple hardwired brush or comb, so my child could experience the sensation of mild to moderate pain with out the fear of harming themselves.
The urge to harm will not go away and it is important to explore safe alternative.
There is no Quick fix
Self-harming is not something you can resolve or “fix” in a short period of time. In the meantime, it is essential that your child is safe and feels comfortable talking to you about how they feel.
You may have to seek outside help. A psychologist or even and psychiatrist to talk about why your child may feel the need to self-harm. The first visit should be to your GP to discuss referrals and assess any physical harm that may need medical attention.
An Occupational therapist may also assist in providing and alternative action to self- harming. An elastic band that can be flicked on the wrist when they wish to experience pain or pressure. Or perhaps a fidget toy that is spikey that can provide a sense of moderate pain when pressed against the skin.
If self-harming behaviour is becoming dangerous and even life threatening a visit to the Emergency department should always be considered. Emergency departments often have a specialist team in place for self-harming or suicide attempts. The Emergency department will almost always refer you on to the CAMHS team. CAMHS (Child and Adult Mental Health Services) works with primary care providers to provide effective responses to children and young people with mild to moderate mental illness.
Fill your bucket first.
I felt like a failure as a parent. I blamed myself, like somehow it was my fault.
It is important that I understood that it wasn’t my doing. I had to make changes and move forward rather than dwelling on the what ifs. Our kids are smart. We are allowed to make mistakes, as long as we are providing a safe space for our children and we let them them know they are loved no matter what.
For us as parents we can only do this by making sure our bucket is full. If you have ever been on a plane you know that we can not help anyone around us unless we put on our oxygen mask first? It is also true with self harm. We need to ensure we are supported before we can genuinely assist our children.
Reach out to family and friends. there is no shame in asking for help. Contact Carer Gateway, they will be able to assist with supports. It can be in the way of respite, financial, assistance around the home. In fact anything that will support you as a carer. Carers Gateway is a national service, is not means tested and is available to anyone in a caring role.
Helpful contact numbers and websites.
Written by me, a mother who blamed and tortured herself for failing her child. Who now is understanding and realises that she is doing her best. Anita