Self Harm and How You Can Help

Self harm is a serious issue affecting many young people today.  Sadly it has become a common coping mechanism of youth who are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed.  Beyond Blue Australia reports 12% of young people will engage in self injurious acts with average first times act occurring at 12-14 years. Whilst not a suicide attempt, the risk of suicidal ideation increases with the longevity of self harm, as does the risk of hospitalisation due to self harm.

For most, the idea of engaging in behaviours such as cutting, burning, hair pulling or hitting oneself seems shocking and difficult to understand.  If your child or anyone you know is engaging in such behaviours it is important to ask them to help you understand and that you are free of judgement or reproach.  The young person is in need of help from a professional and family and friends.

Explanations for self harm include the young person feeling so numb and disconnected that to them the act of self-harm provides an opportunity to feel, therefore reducing frightening and isolating feelings of numbness.  A second reason cited is that the individual is so overwhelmed that cutting creates a release for the internal pain and chaos they are experiencing.  Others use self harm as a means of self punishment in response to feelings of self loathing and judgement caused by depression. The injurious behaviour may provide temporary relief for numbness, overwhelm or self-loathing however they soon returns as the core issues have not been resolved.

In the absence of healthy coping mechanisms self-harm can become habitual and increase in frequency.  Therefore maintaining constant and open communication with our adolescents is essential for providing avenues for them to talk about the challenges they are facing.  Remember, adolescence is a time of great self-exploration and growth, with heightened emotions and at times debilitating self-doubt.  Add to this school pressure, social media, romantic relationships and the complexity of teen friendships, you can see there are many factors that can result in teens feeling overwhelmed, alone and scared.  Find opportunities to talk with your teens when they are receptive, for example driving together in the car, walking, doing a task without other family members.  Let your teens know that you want to know about their good and bad experiences. Also provide the opportunity for your child to speak with a professional counsellor if you sense that they are struggling or there has been a change in behaviour or mood.  

Ensure that your adolescent develops healthy coping strategies such as exercise, regular study breaks, healthy eating, fun activities, reading, journaling, meditation and most importantly adequate sleep. Explore avenues for expression of intense emotion such as boxing classes, drama, art and high impact exercise.  Listening to sad music or watching sad movies can provide a means of emotional release, as can comedy.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your child about self-harm and ask if they have ever thought about it or if any of their friends do it.  Maintain a caring nonjudgmental approach to this but let your child know that it is serious and you are their to help them or their friend get the help they need.  It is important that your child believes you can handle whatever it is they are going through, reassure them that you are there to support.  Self-harm is something to be concerned about, but with the appropriate help, lots of love and patience it can be overcome.

Please see the resources below for further information

A Bright Red Scream – Marilee Strong

The Parents Guide to Self-Harm, What Parents Need to Know – Jane Smith

Stopping the Pain: A Workbook for Teens Who Cut and Self-Injure  – Lawrence E. Shapiro

Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation by Steven Levenkron


Written by

Rachel Upperton
B. Psych (Hons) PhD.
Registered Psychologist, MAPS

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