It’s not a topic that any parent wants to think about - children that purposely hurt themselves. As disturbing as it is to contemplate the possibility that your child may be hurting his or herself intentionally, not paying attention to the signs could have far more distressing consequences.
A recent study from the UK found that the rise in self-harm reports increased nearly 70% among teen girls between 2011 and 2014. It’s not only the United Kingdom that is seeing an increase in teens that self-harm but U.S. researchers have seen the rising rates of self-harming teens, particularly among girls aged 10 to 14 years of age.
Neither of these studies looked at the causes, only the number of reported incidences. These increases do not include non-reported or self-treated self-injury.
Self-harm can take lots of physical forms, including cutting, burning, bruising, scratching, hair pulling, poisoning and overdosing.
When a child self-harms it is not always an attempted suicide or a plea for attention. Instead, it’s often a way for young people to release overwhelming emotions. It’s a way of coping. So whatever the reason, it should be taken seriously.
There are many reasons a child may hurt itself but sometimes even the child may not know the underlying reason why they do what they do.
There are links between depression and self-harm. Quite often a child or young person who is self-harming is being bullied, under too much pressure to do well at school, being emotionally abused, grieving or having relationship problems with family or friends.
The self-harm is often tied to emotions such as:
· Low self-esteem and low confidence
· Lack of control over their lives
Most people want to avoid pain, so the idea of purposely causing emotional or bodily pain is confusing. Often, the physical pain for a child that self-harms is easier to deal with than the emotional pain they are living with. In a way, it gives them control over at least one part of their life.
There are signs that parents can be aware of when a child is physically harming their self. These are commonly found on the head, arms, thighs and chest and may include:
· Bald patches from pulling out hair
There are also emotional signs of self-harm. These are more difficult to spot and don’t always mean that a young person is self-harming. However, if you notice these signs in your child, they should be taken seriously, particularly if accompanied by the physical signs:
· Depression, tearfulness, low motivation
· Withdrawn and isolated, for example, wanting to be alone in their bedroom for long periods of time
· Low self-esteem and self-blame
· Unusual eating habits; increased weight loss or gain
· Drinking or taking drugs
There are things you can do to help your child, but sometimes it is necessary or to reach out for professional help.
Whatever your relationship to a child, discovering they’re self-harming will inevitably have a big emotional effect on you. But however it makes you feel, it's very important that you stay calm and let them know that you're there to help and support them.
You can’t always figure out what is bothering them. It’s important that you know that – you can’t fix everything. Whatever emotional state you are in, never give the impression that their self-harming has created a big problem for you.
It’s also important to remember that the severity of the injuries doesn’t reflect the young person’s suffering. Something has caused them to self-harm – so it’s always helpful to be sensitive. Saying things such as “the injuries aren’t that bad” or “what have you done to yourself?” could make things worse.
Sometimes your child will talk to you about why they are hurting themselves and sometimes they find it embarrassing or too difficult. You might suggest they write you an email or letter so they can express their ideas more clearly without interruption.
Your instinct might be to constantly keep your eye on your child, and that's understandable. But by giving them their own space you'll help build up their confidence and trust. Try to find a balance between monitoring what they're doing and respecting their privacy.
It is important to make sure that if they’re harming themselves that they are cleaning and caring for any injuries effectively.
Strangely, when a person self-harms, chemicals are released into the brain which can become addictive very quickly. They may find that they want to change the behavior, but can’t. Professional counseling may help them find solutions.
The number of children and teens that self-harm is on the rise. Some experts believe that high social media use, cyber and in-school bullying as well as uncertain economic times may be contributors.
You may think that there is no way your child would self-harm, but don’t take it for granted. Look for the signs and address the issue if you feel there’s a chance. You shouldn’t accuse your child of self-harm, but you can always open a dialogue by asking them if they know anyone that self-harms or what they think about it.