Talking To Your Child About Self-Harm – From Both a Parent and Child’s Point of View

I know that talking to your child about self-harm can be exceptionally daunting. You and your child are probably both experiencing a lot of difficult emotions, and it can be hard to know how to deal with it. I hope that my Mum and I can offer some words of advice and comfort for you.

The thought of discussing self-harm with my parents brought up a lot of different feelings and worries. It made me feel very anxious. Self-harm was something that had been my secret for so long. I didn’t think my parents would understand. I knew they would be really upset and I didn’t want to upset them or disappoint them. I thought they would be angry. I knew they would want me to stop, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having my coping mechanism taken away from me.

I remember when I first had to have the discussion with Emily about it and I felt in shock and tearful. I was called in to school by a teacher as Emily had confided in her that she was self-harming. I felt disbelief. I didn’t understand self-harm and was completely ignorant. I’d never needed to understand it before as there hadn’t been a reason for it. It took many days for it to sink in and I felt I couldn’t discuss it with anyone. I felt that no-one would understand and that I would be judged harshly as a mum for my daughter needing to self-harm. Most of all, I couldn’t understand why she was doing it. What had I done or not done for her to need to self-harm? And why hadn’t I noticed?

– From a mother’s perspective.

My first piece of advice would be to try to make sure you understand what self-harm is and why people, especially young people/children, may do it. The most important thing to take away from this is that the fact your child is self-harming does not reflect badly on you as a parent. It does not mean you have failed as a parent.

Some helpful resources:

Once you understand a little about self-harm, the possible reasons for it, and have the understanding that it is likely isn’t about you as a parent, it is much easier to begin a conversation.

I found starting a conversation with Emily about self-harm easier once we had time to get over the initial shock and had time to educate ourselves on self-harm. We talked about keeping her wounds clean and if she couldn’t give up the items right then, talking to her about the importance of these being clean. We tried to provide a ‘safe’ space to discuss it and tried to make it feel ‘normal’ to talk about. This made it easier to discuss. We also talked about the hot weather and how she would cope with her scarred arms. Later on, we talked with her younger siblings and were open and honest, so they could understand why her arms looked like they did. We researched scar cream and found a good one to help her skin heal.

– From a mother’s perspective.

I found it easier to talk about when we were doing something together. Be that baking, doing a jigsaw, walking the dogs, or even just sitting in the car. Sitting down and having a formal conversation would have been too difficult for me. This way we were engaging in a mutual, enjoyable activity, and there was less pressure on the conversation itself. I was able to open up more, and I felt that Mum was more relaxed too, which helped me feel less defensive.

Some of the things that I found, or would have found, helpful to hear…

  • That my parents weren’t angry or upset with me.
  • That they loved me no matter what.
  • That they weren’t disappointed in me.
  • That they weren’t forcing me to tell them anything, but that they wanted me to know they were always there to listen.
  • That they wouldn’t judge me for what I said.
  • That they would help clean and dress the self-harm and I didn’t need to be ashamed of showing them. However, they would understand if I couldn’t.
  • That they would like me to let them know if I felt like self-harming, so that they could sit with me or help distract me. Or that we could create an alert system together so I make them aware but we don’t have to discuss it if it’s too hard, for example me sending Mum a text telling her I’m hungry. But that they understand if I don’t manage to do this.

Some advice I have for parents…

Talk with your child and avoid any blame, judgement or condemnation.

Make it feel ‘normal’ to talk about (it’s easier that way).

Provide a ‘safe’ place to discuss it.

Be open with siblings.

Try and talk to your own friends. The more open you are, the more you realise you’re not the only one going through it. Friends can be a support.

Look after your own mental health.

Ask to see the self harm if it is bad. (Jumping in here to say that this may likely cause a defensive reaction if you have not created a space where it feels comfortable and safe to discuss this yet. If this is the case, respect their response and let them know you are there if they feel comfortable to show you at a later stage. Tell them that if they think it needs medical attention you can take them to the GP or A&E and they don’t have to show you if they’d rather not).

Talk it through. Ask if it requires an A&E visit. Don’t make them feel guilty about another trip to A&E if it does.

When possible, help your child to use distraction techniques to avoid self harm. Have a few activities ready on days where triggers are obvious.

Define what the triggers are in advance, so you can try to be prepared for a difficult day.

Take to A&E if necessary.

Seek help. Don’t give up. Look after yourself.

Take it a day at a time, half a day at a time, or even an hour at a time.

Be patient.

Try and avoid showing your emotion; avoid making your child feel guilty. My reaction was to cry when I found out and this made Emily feel even worse.

It’s painful to know your child is self-harming, but I would rather know than not.

– From a mother’s perspective

We really hope that this post helps. It has been a difficult journey for both of us, and we hope that writing down a bit about our experience and tips we have may help just one parent who is navigating this with their child. Our love goes out to you. We know it’s hard. We also know it’s possible to get through it.

All our love,

Emily and Liz x

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