Heads Above The Waves share some few helpful (and a few unhelpful) reactions that parents can have to finding out that your child is self-harming.
Finding out that your child is self-harming can be a hard thing to hear. How you react to this news is very important – a good reaction can help your child feel that they can trust and talk to you. A bad reaction can do the opposite, and leave them feeling unable to talk with you about what’s really going on.
If you’re shocked, upset, or even angry by hearing the news that your child is self-harming, try to remain calm, and not let your face give away how you’re feeling. Remember that just talking about it can be a big deal for them, and they don’t want to be made to feel “weird” or “abnormal”. Try to act as calmly and rationally as possible.
- You could say: “That’s a lot for you to be dealing with right now – but I’m here for you.”
Focus on their feelings, more than their injuries
The most important thing to remember is that they’re still your child. They’re still the same person they’ve always been. Self-harm is just one behaviour that they’re using to try and cope with how they’re feeling – it doesn’t define who they are.
Self-harm is a coping mechanism – it’s a reaction to another problem. When you’re talking with your child – focus more on what’s leading them to react this way. Ask how they’re feeling, what’s affecting them, and why it’s affecting them so much. Try to avoid asking them to show you their injuries, or getting caught up in just how badly they’re hurting themselves – but make sure they’re not in danger of seriously hurting themselves.
- You could say: “I believe your pain when you tell me; we just need to think of ways to work through that pain, rather than taking it out on yourself.”
You may not have ever experienced a struggle with your mental health or self-harm, so it can be hard to put yourself in their shoes, and understand why someone would want to hurt themselves. But you can understand how hard a painful situation is – you’ve experienced things that have upset you – you’ve just reacted differently. Make the effort to try and think how hard their situation must be, and how upset they are, to have reached the point where they’re taking it out on themselves.
- You could say: “That must be really hard for you. I’m sorry you’re having to go through that.”
Listen, and take them seriously
The thing most young people tell us that they want to get out of speaking to someone about self-harm is having someone listen to them and take them seriously. Listen to what they’re saying to you – repeat it back to them to show you’ve heard what they’re saying, and understand it. Even if their problems don’t sound particularly big to you, they mean a huge amount to your child, so try not to dismiss any of their problems or call them silly.
- You could say: “This is really affecting you, isn’t it? Would you like me to help you do something about it?”
Shouting at them
It’s natural for you to be worried about your child – and concerned about how they’re reacting to their problems. But shouting or getting angry at them will only leave them feeling unable to speak to you. No-one likes being shouted at – especially when they’re opening up about something so personal. Try to imagine how you’d feel if someone shouted at you when you were asking them for help.
- Instead, you could: Listen calmly to what they’re telling you. It’s OK to let them know how it makes you feel, but do it calmly.
Laughing at them
Sometimes people laugh because they’re nervous, or don’t know how else to react. Sometimes people laugh because they don’t understand how serious the situation is. Either way, laughing at your child when they tell you about their self-harm can leave them feeling that they’re not being taken seriously. In some cases, that can lead to them not feeling able to talk to you, in more extreme cases, it can lead to them using different negative behaviours to be taken seriously.
- Instead, you could: Take them seriously, and understand how important it is that they’ve told you. If you naturally react to uncomfortable conversations by laughing – let them know that it’s your way of trying to handle that, not that you don’t take them seriously.
Forcing them to talk
This conversation can be very difficult for your child, and it takes a lot of courage to even start talking about it. With that in mind, it’s important to let them talk as much or as little as they’re ready to.
Of course, you need to make sure they’re not at risk of seriously injuring themselves or others – an easy way to do this is to get them to rate how they’re feeling on a scale of 0-10 (where 0 is suicidal and 10 is totally amazing). But once you’ve established this, let them set the pace of the conversation. It can be hard, but letting them talk at their own pace lets them feel in control of the situation.
- Instead, you could: Suggest other ways for them to communicate with you, as and when they’re ready. They might find it easier for them to write you a letter, or text you, than to actually say the words to your face.
Breaking their trust
Trust, and confidentiality, is something that comes up a lot when we’re talking with young people. Chances are, self-harm is something they’ve been keeping to themselves, and sharing their secret with you is a big deal to them. Don’t go telling everyone else in the family about it, or people who don’t necessarily need to know. Again, there are exceptions. If they’re at risk of seriously harming themselves or others, you need to seek additional support. But the important thing is that you don’t do it behind their backs.
- Instead, you could: Let them know all the actions you’re taking to help them, and remind them why you’re doing it: for their own safety.
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 area 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.