Self-harm is an umbrella term that is used to speak about any form of intentional harm that one does to their body. It has recently sparked some conversation in schools, and homes where the incidence of adolescent self-harm has increased. This is a behaviour that can cause a great deal of anxiety, fear, distress and [...]


Self-harm: What parents, young adults and others need to know


Self-harm is an umbrella term that is used to speak about any form of intentional harm that one does to their body. It has recently sparked some conversation in schools, and homes where the incidence of adolescent self-harm has increased. This is a behaviour that can cause a great deal of anxiety, fear, distress and even anger in parents and other adults who might be confronted with it, mainly due to misconceptions that surrounds it and because self-harm is shrouded in a dense cloak of stigma and shame. It is important that we attempt to unpack the complexities of young people harming themselves, so that we can develop a compassionate and validating approach towards conversations, coping and seeking professional help.

Myth Busters

Young people harm themselves for ‘attention’

Self-harm is a response to emotional pain and distress and needs to be taken seriously. Labelling it as an ‘attention seeking’ behaviour often prolongs distress and makes young people feel invalidated and unacknowledged.

Self-harm is a suicide attempt

Self-harm is a way to express pain and release pent up emotions. This can be a survival mechanism for a young person. This does not mean they want to end their life.

Peer pressure is the key reason for self-harm

Self-harming behaviour can sometimes be a part of asserting one’s identity in a group where many others are harming themselves. However, it is vital that we understand that peer-pressure is not to be used as a scapegoat to explain this complex behaviour. There can be multiple other reasons.

Only teenagers self-harm

People of all ages self-harm.

Why do young people resort to self-harm?

There is often no single reason as to why a young person may harm themselves. It is often a mix of Biological, Psychological, Social and Environmental factors that can contribute. Some people are born more emotionally sensitive than others. This is not necessarily a problem when children learn skills to manage and regulate their emotional world. However, when some children do not learn these skills due to environmental and sometimes familial reasons, they can have a hard time dealing with difficult emotions and might also find it difficult to express emotions like anger, sadness, guilt etc.

Children who are not soothed, held, hugged and provided with emotional validation can develop emotional dysregulation, where they may act impulsively, lash out, and become very overwhelmed with emotions. Some children may become very critical of themselves and also experience self-loathing. Self-harm can be a way of soothing one’s self, when other ways of soothing and coping are not learnt.

Self-harming behaviours can also act as a way to achieve emotional balance, and also as an emotional painkiller. Young people might also engage in it as a way of feeling alive, when everything seems numb and empty inside.  Adolescents and young people who might struggle with suicidal thoughts might self-harm as a way to cope with those thoughts, as a means of distraction. Feelings of invisibility may also be something an adolescent might be fighting when self-harming. The need for validation and affirming could be what they are trying to communicate. Articulating their needs and emotions can be difficult for some young people. The writer hopes that this reinforces the fact that self-harm is not about seeking attention.

As a parent and an adult who cares for and loves an adolescent who self-harms, it is important that the language used to speak about the same is considered seriously. Phrases like ‘superficial cutter’, ‘cutter’, ‘attention seeker’ must be avoided as this can perpetuate the shame and feelings of invalidation that a young person might feel. Saying things like ‘oh, get out of your head’, ‘you think you have problems?’, ‘don’t be selfish’, When I was your age…’, can be unhelpful and can further increase the distress your child or loved one may feel. It is also important to substitute the word ‘but’ with the word ‘and’ in your conversations with your child. For example, a sentence like ‘I can see how sad you are, but you will feel happy again’can be invalidating. You may see and feel a difference if you replaced the ‘but’ with an ‘and’.

Tips to help cope

Validate! Validate! Validate!

Validation does not mean that you agree with their behaviour. It is accepting your child’s experience as it is. It is important that we do not jump into problem solving mode, as that can be premature and cause further invalidation, where a young person may feel that ‘they are not supposed to feel a certain way’.

The acronym THINK borrowed from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (an effective form of psychotherapy for people who self-harm) can be helpful in demonstrating empathy and validation.

T: Think about the other person’s  perspective.

H: Have empathy for the other person,   generating several non-judgmental

I: Interpretations about the person’s  behaviour.

N: Notice the way in which the person is currently struggling or has tried to improve the situation in the past, generating

K: Kindness

Co-regulate: Watch your own emotional responses and reactions. Acknowledge your own difficult/painful emotions when they arise without letting them ‘simmer’. Labelling what you are feeling can be a great way to regulate what you are feeling. When your emotional intensity is modulated as a parent, your child’s emotional intensity will also be regulated. Regulate together!

Holding an ice cube in one’s fist when there is an urge to injure one’s skin, drawing with a red marker pen around the area where there is an urge to injure, splashing one’s face with cold water, tearing a newspaper etc can be helpful things to do instead of self-harming.

You can also help your child self-soothe by encouraging them to massage themselves (especially their arms and neck), listen to their favourite playlist of music, cuddle with a pet, taste their favourite candy, or smell something soothing like cream, soap etc.  You can also help your child create a ‘hope box’, where a box or a basket can be decorated and filled gradually with things your child finds soothing and pleasant. It can be photographs, a CD of their favourite music, a stress ball etc. This box must be accessible for a young person when they need it.

Avoid body checks, this can be humiliating and often unnecessary. It can seem like a form of punishment.

Do not guilt trip your child/teen into stopping harming themselves or force them to stop using coercion and threats. This will only increase their level of distress. They need support throughout the process of healing and recovery.

It is vital that professional mental health care is sought if you know that your child has a problem with self-harm. Taking care of yourself by making sure you eat enough and sleep enough while also managing your stress levels by engaging in hobbies, connecting with people etc will help you care for your child more effectively. Finally, it is essential that you as a parent/adult understand that your child harming themselves is not a reflection of you not being a good parent. It is a behaviour and it is not their entire personality.

Have you got a question for  the author? Write in at
(The author is a counselling psychologist, mental health advocate and trainer).


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