What is self-harm?
Self-harm is generally defined as deliberate injury to oneself, typically as a manifestation of a psychological or psychiatric disorder. There are many reasons why people harm themselves but most often it’s a way of coping with difficult emotions, often associated with depression. Everyone needs to learn to manage and regulate difficult feelings and emotions but some people can find it particularly hard, and their emotions – feelings like guilt, sadness and self-hatred, can feel completely overwhelming. It might seem like self-harm can help to manage these emotions in the short term, but it can be very dangerous and have a negative impact in the long term.
Types of self-harming behaviour
Parents should be aware of the different ways young people can harm themselves and take the necessary steps to get them help.
There are lots of different ways someone could self-harm. These include:
- cutting or scratching
- biting themselves
- causing bruises
- banging their head against a wall
- punching a wall
- pulling out their hair
- burning themselves with fire or chemicals
- poisoning themselves
- starving or overeating
- falling over on purpose
- breaking a bone on purpose.
Why people self-harm
Those who self-harm often view it as an outlet to release negative emotions. They may have low self-esteem, feel depressed or anxious, feel ashamed or guilty about something in their lives, experience loneliness or lack of control, or even feel numb.
Reasons young people have given for hurting themselves include:
- to try and express complicated or hidden feelings
- to communicate that they need some support
- to prove to themselves that they’re not invisible
- to feel in control
- to get an immediate sense of relief (this has to do with how the brain responds to physical pain).
It’s important to remember that self-harm isn’t just ‘attention seeking’, although some people might do it as a way of letting others know they aren’t coping. This might be because they don’t know any other way of telling people, or because they’re worried that others won’t take how they’re feeling seriously.
A person doesn’t usually self-harm because they want to die or they have suicidal thoughts, but some types of self-harm can be very dangerous. It could put someone’s life at risk, even if they’re not suicidal.
Research does show however, that those who engage in self-harm may be at greater risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviours. So, it is important to tackle self-harm and its possible causes as soon as possible.
It can be hard to change self-harming behaviours and learn better coping skills. If the person self-harms and wants to stop, they need to make a conscious decision to break that cycle. There are professional treatments available that can help manage self-harm. A referral to a mental health care professional is needed to better understand the root of the self-harming behaviour.
Tips for parents if their child is self-harming
It can be very distressing to discover that your child is self-harming, but you can address it in many ways while supporting your child.
- Stay calm and avoid judging your child, even if you are upset.
- Understand that your child is not self-harming to get attention but rather to manage and express her emotions.
- Talk to your child and try to understand what is prompting his/her behaviour
- Try to remove the temptation of self-harm, if possible, by encouraging your child to avoid situations in which he/she could harm them self
- Help your child think about why he/she is harming him/herself by asking if she can do anything about the cause or if something else needs to change
- Make a list of people your child can talk to such as you or your partner, other relatives, a teacher, or friends of the family
- Depending on your child’s age, encourage journaling, creative activities, breathing exercises, or physical activity to relieve stress and anxiety
- If your child’s behaviour is not changing or if you suspect she might be depressed, ask your doctor for advice. Depression and anxiety can be treated in many ways.
- Barrocas AL, Hankin BL, Young JF, Abela, JRZ. Rates of Non-suicidal Self-Injury in Youth: Age, Sex, and Behavioural Methods in a Community Sample. Paediatrics peds.2011-2094; doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2094 [Published online ahead of print June 11, 2012.]
- Childline UK
- Self-harm | kidsmatter.edu.au
- What is self-harm? | Self-harm | ReachOut Australia