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Why We Need to Be Honest With Kids About Self-Harm

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Article updated August 12, 2019.

I started self-harming when I was around 19 for around a decade or so.

I stopped cutting regularly about six years ago and haven’t cut at all for over two years. And only twice at all in the last four years. At one point in my life I was cutting daily, as well as abusing my medication. I had therapy and I still take medication but I consider myself in recovery from the worst of my mental health problems.

I still struggle with anxiety and bouts of depression, but those days of daily self-harm and suicide attempts are long behind me. I am left with a lot of scars however. I stuck primarily to cutting my arms, but that does mean they are always visible because I no longer hide them. I’m not ashamed of my scars, my past or any aspect of my mental health.

It is who I am. I worked hard to be the person I am today and have the life I live.

The scars aren’t going anywhere.

People stare. I don’t mind. I’ve always had people stare at me for one reason or another. I’m fat, talk to myself, sing in the street, run around like a “loon,” whatever. People stare at other people. I stare at other people. It’s human nature.

Kids make comments. Ask questions.

OK, so adults do sometimes too. I’ve been derailed in the past by a few adults making comments about my cuts and scars, but nowadays I just take it all in my stride. I used to cut myself. It’s that simple. I’ve had questions at work, in the street, wherever. I try to be an advocate for awareness about self-harm.

It’s not that easy to explain to kids (and some adults), but I think it is worth explaining.

I used to lie to my nephew about my self-harm scars. I told him I was attacked by cats and that’s why I didn’t like them. Or I made it a joke and said it was bears. Or I had an accident. Whenever he asked, I didn’t tell him the truth until he was much older.

I don’t think it was the right thing to do, because now he’s 13 and he knows the truth he just questions why I lied to him and I don’t really have a very good answer.

At the time it was too hard to talk about, and then I just didn’t know how to answer or what to say until I was older and I had already managed to explain it to some adults. To myself. It’s not his fault he had to be part of my process of sorting out my explanation and my feelings towards talking about it. But he was, and now I have to help him understand the complexities of why I lied more than I have to explain the complexities of why I self-harmed.

When I was living in Leicester, I was in the middle of therapy, so I was still cutting sporadically. I was waiting for the bus one day and behind me a kid asked his mum why I had marks all over my arms. He must’ve been about 6 or 7. Without missing a beat, his mum explained that some people hurt themselves when they feel bad or instead of hurting other people.

She didn’t lie, she didn’t hesitate and he accepted it.

I nearly missed the bus. I was stunned that she was so open with him about something I was still struggling to get my head around. I’ve never forgotten that woman and her kid. I wanted to say something to her, but I didn’t. I just got on the bus and went home feeling something different in terms of talking to my nephew about it all.

Once I had lunch with my aunt and my two cousins, who were about 12 and 8 at this point. My 8-year-old cousin Scott asked me about the scars on my arm. I panicked for a moment, then turned to my aunt and asked her what she wanted me to say. She said I could tell them whatever I wanted.

So I told them the truth.

It was easier than I thought it was going to be. I told them I was when I was ill I used to hurt myself to make myself feel better, but it didn’t work very well (definitely the truth). They accepted it easily. And then we had lunch.

Since then, I’ve always been honest. With my niece, my nephew and I’ll be honest with my son when he asks me about it. Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out what the best thing is to say. The best way to describe it to a kid. Hell, the best way to describe it to an adult. I think it depends on the child. I could tell my niece why I have scars quite easily — that I was ill and I hurt myself to feel better — and she would accept it, but I can’t say that for every kid.

I do think it’s best to be honest regardless though. I believe lies don’t get you anywhere. I could’ve given my nephew a fear of cats with my lies (he adores cats). Self-harm was a big part of my mental health illness and that is definitely something we need to be honest with our kids about.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo via sergio_kumer.

Originally published: July 2, 2017
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