There are a lot of different interpretations of self-harm, but put most simply, it most often describes when someone causes harm to themselves in order to cope with thoughts, feelings or difficult circumstances. Often this takes the form of direct self-harm where the sufferer physically hurts themselves in some way such as cutting, burning or scratching themselves, other times it may take the form of indirect self-harm where a young person does themselves harm through actions such as risk-taking or neglect of themselves.
Whilst the ways in which a young person might do themselves harm are unlimited, there are some ways we tend to see more commonly. Amongst children up to about 12 (or older for those young people with special needs) we most commonly see:
During adolescence and beyond, the most common forms or self-harm we tend to see are:
If we consider self-harm in its broadest sense then we might also consider misuse of alcohol or drugs or eating disorders to be forms of self-harm.
As you can see, there are a wide range of ways that young people might harm themselves. The thing that all of these actions have in common is that they are a means of coping, so self-harm is essentaially an unhealthy coping mechanism and any behaviour that can be considered to be an unhealthy way of coping with thoughts, feelings or difficult circumstances might be considered under the umbrella of self-harm.
There are several signs that you can look out for that might indicate that your child is self-harming or is at increased risk of self-harming. It can be helpful to be alert to these, though remember that as their parent you are probably very well attuned to their typical mood and responses to events. If you feel that things aren’t right, even if you don’t have any specific evidence to draw on, then it’s important to talk to your child or to find another means to support. Warning signs include:
Finding out that your child is self-harming is likely to feel very distressing, and many parents feel unsure what to do next and find themselves struggling with a huge mix of emotions ranging from guilt, to anger, to distress and hopelessness. These are all quite normal reactions and it’s important that you give yourself the space and time you need to process your thoughts and feelings and that you consider your own wellbeing as well as that of your child.
As a parent or carer, the most helpful things you can do to help your child are to: