Trying to understand why your child might self-harm can seem impossible. If anyone knows how to explain what they are going through, however, it’s Head Above The Waves co-founder Si – who has first hand experience with self-harm. Here’s his story.
I spent a lot of my teenage years alone. Sometimes through choice – locking myself in my bedroom, keeping to myself rather than interacting with people. Sometimes because I was just a bit awkward and ‘weird’ (whatever that even means).
I didn’t particularly fit in at school. I had one or two close friends, but that was it. I got bullied in school for looking different – or for preferring to sit and play music instead of getting out on the fields and playing rugby. I was starting to get interested in girls, yet struggling to get them interested in me.
All of that led to me feeling isolated and misunderstood. That then led to me feeling frustrated and angry. And that led to me taking it out on myself through self-harm. A secret that I kept to myself.
Long story short: self-harm became my go-to coping mechanism for a while. Not just when I’d had a particularly bad day, but whenever the simplest thing would upset me, I’d take it out on myself.
But one day, I took it out on my drum kit, by playing as hard and fast as I could – and that served the same purpose. It helped me vent all that anger and frustration, and express how I was feeling. I suppose at the most basic level, it helped simply because I was doing SOMETHING to react to my problems – and now it was something creative and positive, rather than hurting myself.
Over the next few years, drumming, and creating music became my new coping mechanism, and it still is to this day.
Heads Above The Waves was set up to share my experience, to encourage others to try using music and the fact that it can get better. What we found was that a lot of others had similar stories, and a wide range of people have used a wide range of coping techniques as alternatives to self-harm. Essentially that “one size doesn’t fit all”. What works for one person won’t work for everyone, so if you’re supporting someone who self-harms, it’s important to find what works for them. (You can read a bit more about my story here if you’re interested!).
Growing up, my life at home had been relatively normal. If anything, I was very lucky. I had both parents around. We went to church every Sunday, we actively participated in the community, we went on holidays. We watched Fawlty Towers & Dad’s Army and we would always eat our evening meal together.
As I hit my difficult teenage years, I’d roll my eyes and spend the least amount of time possible sat at that evening meal. In retrospect, though, it’s something I’m incredibly grateful for. That simple, short time sat around a table with people who loved me was, whether I realised it or not, a daily reminder that there were people there for me. That I wasn’t facing the world alone. No-one necessarily actually said it – and I certainly wouldn’t have admitted it as a 15-year-old – but it was quality time spent together that really meant something. I think everyone should make the time to share food with their loved ones as often as possible.
When we started Heads Above The Waves a few years ago, I decided that I’d have to tell my parents that self-harm was something I’d struggled with as a teenager. I sat them down and said it. I self-harmed as a teenager. The secret I’d been keeping all these years finally came out. I wasn’t sure what I thought their reaction would be, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what they said: “Oh, we knew”. Perhaps I’m not so good at keeping secrets.
“What?! You knew? Why didn’t you ever do anything about it?” was my flabbergasted response. My mum’s reply is something that’s stuck with me:
“We weren’t sure what to do. So we were just.. There for you.”
I suddenly had flashbacks to all those meals at the dining table. All the invitations to come down and watch re-runs of 70s sit-coms. All the times me and my dad would sit silently side by side working our way through Playstation games together. All the times my mum would come up to my room and patiently listen while I ranted about school. All the little things that I didn’t necessarily realise were happening, but were subtle, constant reminders that I was loved. That there was someone there for me.
I guess the key takeout for you, reading this, is that sometimes it might not feel like you’re doing much. But you can be having a huge impact. Your child might not realise it right now, but they will in a few years time. Simply being present, taking an interest in them and their situation, making the time to sit with them and chat. They are all things that make a real difference.
Sometimes you don’t even need to actually talk. Engage in an activity together – find a shared interest, or start something new together. Even if that’s just going out for some exercise once a week, talking about a new film or book, or getting a bunch of supplies in and doing some arts & crafts. Top tip: teenagers love to eye roll and complain. It’s just what we do. But in a few years time, they’ll probably look back on it fondly, and appreciate that you took the time to share in an interest with them.
I think that just by being more aware about why someone would self-harm – knowing that it’s serving a purpose, as a coping mechanism – can make you feel more equipped to help support someone else. For me, it was playing drums that helped. But like I said: one size doesn’t fit all.
Be aware of what positive coping techniques your child has (or would like to take up!), and encourage them to keep doing them as much as possible. My family and neighbours deserve a medal for putting up with my hours of cathartic drum practise. I’ll sort you guys out with backstage passes when I’m selling out Wembley Stadium.
Helping someone who’s self-harming doesn’t have to be scary. Yes, it can hurt you to see them hurting themselves, but it’s their struggle – they need to tackle it at their own pace. But you can be there for them along their journey. Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do. Just be there.
This article was written by Heads Above The Waves – a non-profit organisation who raise awareness of self-harm among young people, and promote creative ways of dealing with the bad days. Visit their website for advice, information and inspiration.
If you’d like to find out about services available to you and your child in your areas or would like to chat about family matters in general, get in touch with the FamilyPoint Cymru helpline.
- Phone: 0300 222 57 57
- Text: 07860 052 905
- Instant message (see top of page)
We are open 6pm – 10pm Monday to Thursday and 10am – 2pm Friday & Saturday.
If you are worried that you child is self-harming, or want to more about it, then Head Above The Waves have written a number of blogs offering support and advice.
Check out some others:
- Self-Harm: Helpful Reactions As A Parent
- Self-Harm: Unhelpful Ways To Talk About It
- 4 Ways To Start Talking About Self-Harm
- A Problem Shared: Postnatal Depression