Previously this series of posts has looked at demystifying some of the common misunderstandings around self-harming behaviour. We know that despite its frequency amongst adolescents, self-harm often hides under the silent cloak of shame and fear.  A follow up post considered some factors which may be triggers for this type of behaviour. Not a definitive list by any means.

Of course the issue of self-harm … and the implications around it … are much bigger than can be easily represented here. While the following strategies and suggestions can be helpful for any parent or caregiver facing with this situation, I strongly advise families dealing with episodes of self-harming to seek appropriate medical assistance.

Ultimately, support for a self-harming young person needs to focus on them feeling heard, understood and never judged. Whilst the harming behaviour may be shocking or disturbing it does not define them and it’s not who they are.

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The National Youth Mental Health Foundation offers the following advice for parents and caregivers on how to support and help a young person who may be participating in self-harming behaviour …

  • listen to your instinct and never dismiss or ignore your concerns – let them know you are concerned because you care and you are available to and for them
  • learn more about self-harming – read and understand all you can, talk to professionals with experience in the field
  • keep calm and be aware of your own emotions. Approaching the young person needs to be done calmly so as not to distress them or the situation
  • be open to listening and hearing them – don’t make assumptions about why they may be self-harming and don’t panic fearing the worst
  • directly and clearly ask the young person if they are suicidal (being upfront enough to talk about it will not put the idea in their head)
  • offer to facilitate support for them – encourage them to seek professional help at the earliest opportunity
  • understand that self-harming can be an addictive coping mechanism and demands that they stop immediately can be unreasonable and very stressful
  • let them know that there could be cause to tell others who need to know eg other parent/school counsellor etc and that their confidence and support can be assured, preferably have them permit this
  • be open and upfront in your conversations – euphemisms and dodging the topic won’t assist anyone
  • the carer needs to care for themselves, too! Don’t forget to seek support for yourself while dealing with this.

As a self-harming young person accepts support … and takes steps along the road to recover, here are some suggestions on distractions or practical replacement behaviours that may help when their urge to self harm strikes …

  • marking the skin with a red pen instead of harming
  • pounding a punching bag or other gym equipment
  • vigorous exercise
  • making noise – music, banging, screaming
  • journalling/painting/drawing
  • writing down angry thoughts and ripping or burning them
  • participating in online support forums
  • flicking elastic bands onto the skin
  • talking to a friend, counsellor or support line staff

Because self-harming behaviour is usually masking a heavier emotional hurt, successful support is dependent on dealing with the range of underlying issues and not only the harm itself. Your GP is an excellent first port of call to assist with referrals to local health professionals who specialise in adolescent mental health.

Please remember you … and your adolescent … are never alone.


NOTE: this is not intended in any way to replace professional medical or psychological advice. Please seek appropriate and timely support whenever necessary.

Support information:  Parentline 1300 30 1300; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
photo credit: DesolationSmile via photopin cc

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