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When your child self-harms

Self-harm is an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with emotional pain and stress. If your child self-harms, listen compassionately, and get help.

Self-harm (or self-injury) is when individuals deliberately harm their own bodies, in an effort to cope with emotional pain, anger or frustration. While self-harm may bring a momentary sense of relief, it is typically followed by guilt and shame, and the inevitable return of the feelings that prompted the behaviour.

Some people self-harm only a few times and then stop. Others fall into a persistent pattern of self-harm that turns into an unhealthy coping mechanism for stress.

Types of Self-Harm

Self-harm, especially when it has become a well-established pattern of behaviour, is a typically an activity that is done privately, behind closed doors. The results of self harm – scratches, cuts, burns, punctures – are also usually hidden from view. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Cutting and scratching, with sharp objects
  • Carving words or symbols into the skin
  • Self-battery, such as punching or slapping oneself, head-banging
  • Biting oneself
  • Burning or branding, with lighters, cigarettes, or heated objects like knives.
  • Friction burns from excessive rubbing
  • Piercing with sharp objects
  • Inserting objects under the skin

The arms, legs and torso are the usual targets for self-harm as these are easily covered afterwards. However any part of the body may be a target for self-harm.

Signs and Symptoms

If someone you care about is self-harming, you may see the following signs and symptoms:

  • Having self-harming objects on hand, such as knives, blades, needles, and lighters. These objects may be found hidden in the bedroom or bathroom.
  • Disappearing behind closed doors for extended periods, especially when upset
  • Self-isolation, avoiding friends, family and other social situations
  • Scars, often in one location, possibly in a pattern
  • Frequent fresh cuts, bruises, bite marks or other wounds
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants, even in hot weather
  • Blood stains on clothing, or finding tissues with blood in their room
  • Frequent reports of accidents
  • Low-self esteem, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Emotional instability, outbursts of anger, risk-taking

Always intervene and show compassion if you discover a loved one has been engaging in self-harm.

What To Do

Discovering that a family member or friend is self-harming can be distressing and upsetting. It may be difficult to understand why they are behaving in this manner. But remember, they are doing so because they are in emotional pain. Take a moment to collect yourself, and follow these do’s and don’ts:

DO

  • Stay calm
  • Assess whether they need immediate medical attention for physical injuries
  • Determine whether they need immediate psychological help – are they in crisis?
  • Be compassionate
  • Ask how they are feeling
  • Listen without judgement; stay emotionally neutral
  • Offer support without reinforcing their behaviour
  • Encourage them to use their voice for self-expression, rather than their body
  • Arrange professional help for them (or encourage them to seek it)

DON’T

  • Promise to keep their self-harm a secret
  • Avoid the subject, or ignore what you have seen
  • Focus on the self-harm – instead, focus on their feelings
  • Dismiss it as “attention-seeking”
  • Make them feel guilty or shame them for their actions
  • Treat them differently. They are still the same person you know and love.

Developing healthy, effective ways to cope with emotional pain and stress are key to reducing and eliminating self-harming behaviours. If you or someone you know self-harms, contact the BFDC. We can help.