When it comes to self-harm advice for parents, the best place to start is by learning more about it.
Self-harm may be defined as:
any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself without wanting to die. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations.”
People who cut themselves or engage in other self-harm injuries use this behaviour as an unhealthy coping strategy to deal with their pain or confusion. The self-harming behaviour is not done with the intent of dying; however, if people are unable to control their pain, they may consider suicide.
Self-harm behaviour is often associated with mental health diagnoses such as anxiety, personality disorders, depression, psychological pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. People may find that the physical pain of self-harm provides temporary relief from their emotional pain. It may be escalated by drug and alcohol misuse.
Why does my Child Self-Harm?
There are many reasons why people turn to self-harm.
To feel engaged – People who self-harm often report feelings of dissociation and detachment from their family, friends, relatives and neighbours. Some say that self-harm helps them to feel more calm and in control, and also more engaged with their loved ones.
To communicate their psychological pain – Some are motivated to self-harm in an attempt to show others that they are struggling, and as a way of communicating their needs. These people will either openly share their self-harming behaviour or intentions, and tend to harm themselves more visibly.
To seek attention and support: While perhaps the most common belief about self-harm is that it’s attention seeking behaviour, sometimes this is indeed true. These people have learned and relied upon unhealthy strategies for seeking support, attention and validation of their feelings for many years. They may feel that they have no other options, or do not know the healthy way to reach out or ask for support.
Signs of Self-Harm
One of the most common questions from concerned parents is around the potential signs that their child may be self-harming. Physical signs may seem like the most obvious, but there are other more subtle indications that somebody is self-harming.
- dressing inappropriately for the weather, such as wearing long-sleeved tops in the summer;
- avoiding activities that expose the body, such as swimming;
- washing clothes separately;
- interacting less or being less involved in activities such as at home, school or work;
- having unexplained wounds or unlikely justifications for injuries;
- hiding potentially dangerous objects, such as razor blades or cigarette lighters.
- lack of interest in hobbies that were once enjoyed;
- withdrawing from social interactions;
- having difficulties communicating with loved ones;
- drastic mood swings;
- changes from their usual eating and sleeping schedule.
- complaining of headaches or stomach pains with no explanation;
- overdosing on medicine and requiring medical attention;
- physical signs of self-harm on the body such as open wounds or cuts.
Self-harming is an unhealthy coping strategy, as it comes with risks and further consequences and complications such as:
- An increased risk of serious physical harm;
- Accidental suicide;
- Becoming suicidal;
- Feel confined to a cycle of hopelessness;
- Long term scarring;
- Brain injury; and even
- Organ damage.
If you know someone who is in immediate danger, call triple zero immediately, or contact one of the below organisations:
- SANE Australia — 1800 18 7263
- Lifeline — 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service —1300 659 467
- Reach Out Australia Kids Helpline — 1800 55 1800
- Beyond Blue — 1300 22 4636
- Mens Line — 1300 789 978
Getting Help for Self-Harming Behaviour
If you are concerned that your child is exhibiting self-harming behaviours, consider consulting with your GP as they may be able to arrange a mental health assessment for your child, and further support such as counselling by a mental health professional.
In counselling, strategies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) may be used to assist your child in identifying the cause of their emotional distress, as well as equipping them with the skills to manage their thoughts and feelings in a healthier way.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – Cognitive behavioural therapy is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health. CBT focuses on challenging and changing cognitive distortions (unhelpful thinking) and behaviours, improving emotional regulation, and the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current mental health problems.
- Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) – Distraction techniques taught as part of DBT help replace a very dangerous activity with a constructive or harmless activity. Some of these techniques may feel uncomfortable or hurt, but they are not dangerous like self-harming. Common examples include holding ice cubes, or keeping a rubber band on the wrist, to be snapped against the wrist whenever the person feels the need to self-harm.
My last piece of self-harm advice for parents is that it can be a very distressing experience, so make sure that you also receive the support you need.
Author: Vishal Patel, M Social Work, AASW, AMHSW.
Vishal Patel is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, with significant experience in working with victims of trauma, abuse and violence. His area of interest includes addressing significant complex and challenging behaviours in children under the age of 12 years. He is able to provide therapy in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129.
- Healthdirect.gov.au. 2021. Self-harm. [online] Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/self-harm [Accessed 14 May 2021].
- Lifeline. 2021. Self harm. [online] Available at: https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/information-and-support/self-harm [Accessed 14 May 2021].
- Mental Health Literacy. 2021. Understanding Self-Injury/ Self-Harm – Mental Health Literacy. [online] Available at: https://mentalhealthliteracy.org/understanding-self-injury-self-harm/ [Accessed 14 May 2021].