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Self-harm: facts for parents

It is very distressing to find out that someone you care about is self-harming. Feelings of shock, confusion, guilt or even anger are common - not surprisingly, given the upsetting emotions this kind of behaviour exposes. 

Young people often sense that these are likely to be their parents' reactions, so they hide what they're up to, so as not to distress. The silence is a sign that they feel ashamed - so it's really important to be as compassionate and non-judgemental as possible. It's hard if you are feeling shaken or alarmed so take the time to settle yourself.

Self-harming happens for a range of reasons, most commonly as a way of managing high levels of distress or difficult feelings. But it can also be an attempt to communicate unhappiness. Take the time to ask questions and find out what is fuelling the behaviour. 

That said, asking too many questions can backfire, so judge how much you can probe by thinking about your relationship with your child.  

Most people find it scary to ask about suicidal thoughts but it doesn’t put ideas into people's heads. You can ask whether your child has thoughts about wanting to die; it's important to assess how risky the situation might be.

You should also try to ask your child about their mood, confidence, anxiety, whether they're eating and what they're doing online. Most advice suggests that it is important to work towards open communication about online activity rather than attempting to control it. You may, though, want to make recommendations!

In fact, many young people find their own solutions to distress and self-harm, with the help of friends, teachers or school counsellors.  If you think the risk of harm is high or there are significant mental health problems such as depression or an anxiety disorder, then you may want to ask your GP for a referral to a child and adolescent mental health service.    

There are no right ways to help with self-harm, no easy answers. But a few things do seem to be important:

  • creating and encouraging positive and supportive relationships, including with family members
  • being compassionate and not reacting with too much alarm
  • working with your child to find solutions to problems that fuel the distress
  • being available to listen and, if your child is not communicating with you, trying to ensure there is someone they can talk to
  • being interested in, and concerned about, their progress

Additional information is available from NHS choices, or Young Minds. The Royal College of Psychiatrists provides a number of leaflets such as Self-harm and young people.