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Dear Parents: Here’s What to Know If Your Child Self-Harms

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

Disclaimer: some of the advice below is specific to the United Kingdom health care system. If you live outside of the U.K., the process may be slightly different for you. This article aims to give general advice only. 

Dear parents,

Our children are our worlds. We raise them from when they can barely hold their heads up until they’re packing their bags and moving in with their own family. Most parents would do anything to spare their child from the horrors of the world, but what do you do if those horrors are inside your child’s head? 

Children may self-harm for a number of reasons, but the parental feeling tends to follow the same thought: what did I do wrong? Did I not show them enough love? How did I miss the signs? What do I do now? As someone who self-harmed as a child, I’m here to try and help you through this difficult and emotional time.

The first thing to know is that this is not your fault. Most self-harming behavior stems from a mental health disorder and, although environmental factors may be a contributing part of the behavior, it is unlikely to be the root cause. The fact that you’re trying to find guidance by reading this article shows that you care, and that’s one of the most important things. 

The second thing to know is that there is no quick and easy solution. You won’t be able to stop the behavior overnight, because self-harming is so much more than the action of hurting yourself. Even if you managed to stop your child from self-harming, the likelihood is the root issues would stay. This is going to be a long, emotional and likely painful process. You can’t rush for a cure because it simply won’t work.

Firstly, I recommend that you have a heart-to-heart with your child. Let them lead the conversation. Don’t push them to talk, because they might not be ready to completely open up to you yet. Remind them that you love them and that, when they are ready to talk, you will be there for them.

Secondly, get them help. Many children may be nervous talking to parents or family about what they’re going through, and so often talking to someone they don’t know is easier. There are many ways to get help for a young person who is self-harming: in the U.K., you can talk to your child’s doctor to be referred through to a mental health service, you can self-refer your child to a service, or you can pay for a private mental health service. Additionally, many schools have a mental health service available, so perhaps talking to your child’s school’s point of contact such as their teacher may be a viable option too.

Thirdly, treat them “normally.” This may seem counterproductive but, in my experience, focusing on the problem will only make it worse. Obviously, it needs to be discussed and talked about, but don’t make it the topic of every conversation. Your child is probably already feeling isolated and alone, and drawing more attention to this fact is likely to make them retreat even more. Show them love, show them affection and show them that you care.

Additionally, if you suspect that your child may be self-harming, or simply just not OK, please reach out. Don’t accuse them of anything; just ask if they are OK and let them know that no matter what they’re facing, you’ll be there to help them. Your child may not be ready to talk, but they will benefit from the reassurance that when they are ready, you’ll be there to help.

Self-harming is not a habit you can just stop. Telling your child to “not do it anymore,” or asking “can you not do it for me,” won’t magically make the problem go away. There are no magic words to stop self-harming: the issue is more than skin-deep. I hope this article helps you during this difficult time.

For more on self-harm and recovery, see The Mighty’s condition guide to self-harm.

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

Originally published: July 16, 2021
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