Understanding Self Harm For Parents

self harm; the psych professionals

Self harm! The term itself often evokes panic, fear, sadness, anger and anxiety in the parents of young people who engage in this behaviour. But, what is self harm and why do young people do it? Is it on the rise? Will they grow out of it? These are all typical questions I get asked when working with a young person who engages in this behaviour. More importantly I’m asked ‘what can I do to help my child’? After reading this blog you’ll have more information about self harm and what you can do to help your child.


What is Self harm?

Self harm is the umbrella term that encompass suicidal behaviours and non suicidal self injury. This blog will specifically look at Non Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI). NSSI consists of behaviours such as cutting, burning, scratching, hitting or otherwise hurting oneself, deliberately, with the aim of coping with a feeling or situation. It is estimated, in Australia, that approximately 10% of adolescents report having engaged in NSSI at some point in their lives. The most common age for NSSI to start is between the ages of 12 and 14. It is more common in girls than boys, However, NSSI can occur in anyone, of any age, background, ethnicity and socio economic status.however, It is difficult to say whether NSSI is on the increase. Anecdotally, school staff report a rise in the behaviour. This may very well be the case. Research evidence about the prevalence of NSSI is very difficult due to the secretive nature of NSSI. The shame young people have in admitting to self harming behaviours also make it difficult to measure.


Self harm as a Coping Strategy?

What we do know is that NSSI is a coping strategy. Young people use it to regulate feelings they either don’t understand, don’t know how else to manage or find too overwhelming. Common triggers for NSSI can be difficulties or conflicts with parents or peers, school or work problems, physical health issues, depression, bullying, low self esteem, sexual problems or drug and alcohol use. Young people say their most common reasons for engaging in NSSI are to feel something (i.e., no longer ‘numb’), express emotion, communicate feelings, regulate emotion, relieve tension & frustration, feel a sense of control, self-soothe, punish oneself or cleanse oneself.

Some young people may learn about this coping strategy, try it once, find that it does not work, and never try it again. Others may try the behaviour and find it very effective in temporarily helping to convey how they are feeling or give an outlet for their emotions. The difficulty with this is that often the act itself is then followed by intense shame and disappointment (for resorting to such behaviour) which results in unmanageable feelings. The solution – engage in NSSI to temporarily manage these feelings. Hence, the rewarding cycle continues. Many young people I talk to want to stop the behaviour but are scared of what will happen if they do stop or scared that they won’t be able to stop.


My child Self harms – What can I do?

This information is great, but what can I do? As a parent, it might be one of the most difficult things to come to terms with – a child who deliberately hurts themselves. I haven’t met anyone who has said it is easy to deal with. It’s not. But, you are not alone and there is help available. Start with these simple strategies that you can do to assist a young person to stop the behaviour:

  • Firstly, and MOST importantly, be non judgemental, empathic and compassionate. Young people often tell me that they are scared of their parents finding out about this behaviour because they fear judgement, punishment and shame;
  • Try to understand the reasons that your child is engaging in this behaviour and not assume the reasons for it;
  • Be aware of your emotional reaction. It is perfectly normal to be shocked, anxious, saddened and angered by this behaviour. Even though you feel this way, try to:

o   Stay calm
o   Be honest with your child about your feelings but share your quest to help make sense of the behaviour
o   Seek support from a friend or professional
o   Look after yourself emotionally and physically

  • Don’t make promises you cannot keep (for example stating: I won’t tell anyone);
  • Be realistic – not every young person is ready and willing to change this behaviour. Provide them with information that may help them to make a decision about seeking help or that helps them to feel less alone in their experience;
  • Be aware that if a young person is engaging in NSSI to cope with intense and painful emotions, taking away that strategy may intensify their feelings. Talk with your young person and offer other strategies as substitutes such as exercise, talking to someone or doing something relaxing. However, this may only be a temporary solution and may not be enough to stop the NSSI completely; and
  • Seek professional support for your child such as from a child psychologist. NSSI can be a complex issue that may require professional input.

Support for Self harm

There is hope. NSSI is very treatable and there are a number of effective strategies available that help teaches young people how to regulate emotions, tolerate distress, problem solve and learn to take care of themselves. If you are concerned about your young person seek some support. You can call/email one of our friendly Client Relationship Team Members (i.e. receptionists) and they will be happy to answer any questions you might have and provide you with some information:

Loganholme Practice:  P: (07) 3801 1772 | E: info@psychprofessionals.com.au

Capalaba Practice:  P: (07) 3823 2230 | E: contact@psychprofessionals.com.au

Or, go to our contact us page and complete our Online Enquiry Form and someone will call you at a time convenient to you.

You may also like to try the following websites: