This is the 2nd article from Heads Above The Waves for Mental Health Awareness Week. They spoke to some young people from South Wales on their experiences of having conversations about self-harm, which were started by their parents or carers.
We’ve gathered a few of their thoughts here as a way to demonstrate what might be helpful and unhelpful ways of speaking to your young person about their self-harm. This can also prepare you for a conversation if you’ve noticed injuries, or your young person hasn’t been themselves recently, or even if their school has informed you that they’re struggling.
“My Dad decided to bring it up at a family meal. Everyone was there – cousins, aunties and uncles, my brothers and little sister. It didn’t need to be broadcast and I was so embarrassed!”
Starting a conversation this way can make everyone involved feel uncomfortable. Finding a quiet, private place to speak one-to-one can make it less intimidating for the young person and will help them feel safe to talk without being judged. They’re more likely to have a rational conversation if you respect their privacy.
When starting the conversation, ask if they are ok to speak to you about it or if they want to speak to a different family member they feel more comfortable with. Assure them you’ll only speak to other family members if it’s necessary and you’ll ensure they are discreet and understanding of the situation.
“My Mum and Dad were helpful cos they let me talk about general stuff”
This is great because just talking regularly builds up relationships and stops stuff from building up and boiling over. It doesn’t always have to be an intense conversation about self-harm. It can be just a really engaging chat about how their day has been.
Sometimes it won’t be the right time to talk, so it can help to say that you’re always there for a chat, to make a bit more time to spend time together so they have the opportunity to talk to you – when they’re ready. Forcing them to chat can make them shut down, it’s better to give them the option for when they feel is right to talk about things that are going on.
“They kept shouting and saying ‘Why didn’t you tell us?!’ and then they started to cry”
Showing emotion is fine because it lets them know how much you care about the young person, but shouting can be really scary and the young people we spoke to stressed that they didn’t want to make anyone angry when starting a conversation. It makes them feel more guilty about what they’ve done and upset that they’ve hurt you.
Right now it’s not about you – so it’s important to focus on why they felt like self harm was the solution, and how you can help them cope better. The best course, even if emotions are running high, is to try and stay calm, collected and reassuring for the young person. Take 5 minutes if you need to, don’t be afraid to show emotion, just don’t get angry.
“I wish she’d just try to help me through it instead of using shock tactics”
Some young people expressed that their parents or carers had tried to scare them out of self-harming by using shock tactics.
Trying to scare someone, giving them the worse case scenario or harmful ultimatums isn’t helpful and can alienate you from the young person.
Understanding that self-harm is masking an underlying problem that needs to be addressed is key. Focus on the positive support you can get them and talk through different coping techniques.
“Keep asking if I’m OK – not just for the first week and then hope it goes away”
Although they didn’t want to be badgered, there’s a line between still checking in and offering support whilst not being too overprotective and nagging them to be better already.
Get the young person actual support in place from the family, or outside support like a counsellor. Know that this may be a one-off or it may be an ongoing situation. Don’t treat them any differently but let them know that you’re there for them, make time to check on how they’re doing and find a way to engage with and support them that’s comfortable for you both.
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.