Self-harming is often the thing that puts fear into the hearts of parents. It is after all an abhorrent thought. It is also a sign of distress and should be taken seriously but is almost always not a sign of suicidal tendencies. It is more a way of expressing helplessness or powerlessness. It is also a way of expressing anger.

Most young people know of someone else who self-harms even if they don’t. Most young people who self-harm do it by cutting their skin with razor blades. The majority of adolescents who self-harm are girls, but the prevalence of self-harming boys is on the increase. When self-harming, the emotional pain that young people are suffering is temporarily relieved. Neither emotional not physical pain is experienced. Instead, there is a ‘cutting off’ from all thoughts or feelings.

It is important as parents to try to see beyond the behaviour to the thoughts and feelings underneath. We have all entered that state of wanting to ‘cut off’ from painful thoughts or feelings. Cutting is a more extreme behaviour but drinking a lot of alcohol, taking recreational drugs, overeating, undereating, all of these are behaviours we might use to numb aspects of pain. If as parents we can let our young people who we suspect of self-harming know that we are looking at the hidden thoughts and feelings, they can feel immediately heard.

If you suspect your daughter or son is self-harming, you can try to talk to them about it. If they refuse to discuss it, you can let them know that you know about feelings that are overwhelming and seem too terrible to share. You can name feelings like anger, shame, disgust; you can let your adolescents know that you know about such feelings and they are not so unusual. This sort of approach can help young people to open up, especially if they are just beginning down the self-harming path.

If there are two parents, make sure both of you express your concern. There needs to be a policy of openness between the young person and both parents. This is a time when the young person needs to be held by knowing that both parents know, and are concerned but not so shocked that they can’t talk about it. There will be enough shame already being felt. So if you are bursting with worry, you need to find your own outlet. Talk to a friend, talk with your partner when the young person is out, find other parents who have been through it and come out the other side. It is not something to be ashamed about.

Of course if it doesn’t improve or if it gets worse, go to your GP. Don’t leave it. It is to be taken seriously but it is not helpful to panic. Remain as calm as you can and take action as necessary. It can be helpful for parents as well as young people to seek counselling help. With most cases, it is a phase that passes, often with some sort of outside help. It is most often not something that remains as a feature through to adult life.

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists