Why do young people feel the need to self harm?
There can be many different reasons why young people and sometimes children hurt themselves.
- Major life events such as the death of a close relative, friend or pet can trigger intense feelings.
- Difficulties with relationships, especially when a young person may feel they have no control, are being bullied, or if they feel left out and isolated.
- Feeling overwhelmed by pressures, maybe to achieve at school, or pressures to look, act or behave in a certain way.
These experiences can lead to intense and painful feelings like anger, sadness, low self-esteem and anxiety. A young person may be aware of losing a sense of control in their lives, or they may be unaware and confused as to why they are feeling the way they are.
Physically hurting oneself is a controlled way of feeling that intense emotion. It can give a sense of relief. Common ways to self harm are cutting, burning or pulling hair out. The vast majority of those who self harm are not trying to end their lives, they simply need a way to express their feelings, or gain relief from them.
Sometimes the idea of self harm is picked up from peers, celebrities and social media. But your child might be also acting very differently; changes in diet, difficulty sleeping, dressing differently to hide parts of their body, and seeming unusually distant, anxious or down, or you may just instinctively sense something is troubling them.
What you can do?
- Try to stay calm. You will naturally be feeling very anxious at the thought of your child hurting them self, but showing them your worried feelings may make them feel guilty and less likely to open up to you.
- Listen. Really listen, however hard it may be; your natural parent reaction may be to jump straight in and try to stop them, but give them time, space and your understanding. They may not want to talk straightaway, but knowing that you are there if they do, is really important.
- Keep their trust. They have shared something very difficult and private with you, allow them to decide when and how to share there experience with other family members. Try to persuade them to see your GP who will offer medical advice if required, also explain that their school can help, and may have a counsellor, that they can talk to.
- Try to encourage them to express how they feel in other, more helpful ways. Talking with a trusted friend, or relative, writing a letter, journal or painting and drawing are all really good ways to get out painful feelings.
- Suggest other activities to channel their energies and emotions. It might be a jog (or just a walk) along the beach, or perhaps get them to help choose some new colours to decorate a room. It’s often easier to engage with your child while doing something else.
Remember to look after yourself, too. Try not to blame yourself. It’s natural for our children to push us away; trying to sort out their problems themselves is part of growing up. The most important thing is that they know you are there for them, and you are ready to listen, and it’s still ok for them to need you.
The NSPCC has an excellent helpline if your child or you need to talk further about any concerns - 0808 800 5000.
Related articles from our experts
- Self-harm and the body
Dr Kornilia Givissi, Counselling Psychologist (HCPC Reg, DCounsPsy)27th April, 2017
- Compulsive behaviour and mindfulness
Gunasara Evans - Registered Member MBACP3rd April, 2017
- Why people self-harm and how others react to it
Dr Alexander Hektorsson (Chartered Psychologist)10th March, 2017
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