It is a way of taking emotional or ‘unreachable’ pain and making it into something real – turning it into an external thing that is tangible and controllable.

What to do if you think your child is self-harming

July 1st, 2020
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It can be frightening to realise that your child, or a child in your care, might be hurting themselves. It’s important to stay calm and know that you’re not alone. Self-harm has been on the increase in recent years, and can affect both genders – in fact, the number of boys who self-harm is now higher than the number of girls.

A child might turn to self-harm for many reasons– and there’s plenty you can do to help. The most important thing to remember is that you should never tell a self-harmer to stop; they won’t be able to do so without a strong support system in place. You want to avoid putting any further guilt and shame on someone who is already struggling.

Here are the signs to look out for, and the steps to take if you think your child might be self-harming.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when someone intentionally hurts themselves physically. It is a way of taking emotional or ‘unreachable’ pain and making it into something real – turning it into an external thing that is tangible and controllable. It may feel like the only thing within a child’s control, so it’s important that you approach the situation calmly and carefully.

While more than half of people who die by suicide have a history of self-harm, suicide is rarely the goal of self-harm. Self-harming is a coping strategy, and suicide happens when there are no coping strategies in place or when coping strategies stop being effective. Unfortunately, suicide is sometimes the unintentional result of an act of self-harm.

Different types of self harm

There are many types of self harm behaviour in young people. These can include:

  • Cutting or burning skin
  • Self-strangulation using ligatures
  • Hitting or biting themselves
  • Pulling out hair
  • Poisoning themselves with tablets or liquids
  • Purposefully engaging in physically risky behaviour
  • Banging their head against the wall

One method that can be used to help prevent more dangerous forms of self-harm is to redirect these impulses – by snapping an elastic band against the wrist, for example, or holding ice cubes until they melt. These give similar feelings of pain or discomfort without the risk of infection or damage.

Signs of self-harm

Some of the signs of self-harm are obvious – like unexplained cuts or burns – but often self-harmers will be skilled at hiding this kind of evidence. Subtler signs to watch for include:

  • Wearing full coverage clothing (even in hot weather)
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent illness
  • Hair loss
  • Bloody tissues in the rubbish
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low mood
  • Expressing feelings of failure and self-hatred

Privacy is essential for self-harm, so withdrawal from social and family activities is a big red flag, particularly when paired with any of the behaviours listed above.

Make sure to make yourself available to your child to listen completely. They will need a strong support network to help them with their self harm.

Why do people self-harm?

Because self-harm is a coping tool, there can be many contributing factors. Some of these include social problems like bullying and peer pressure, the glamorising of self-harm on social media, anxiety, depression, and overwhelming pressure to achieve.

Children in care can be at higher risk of having experienced trauma and abuse in their past, and will be less likely to have developed safe and constructive coping strategies – meaning they may be more likely to turn to self-harm.

What can parents and carers do?

  • Stay calm and non-judgmental. Don’t show horror, disgust or disappointment, and don’t make your child promise to stop. Instead, support your foster child in building resilience, identity, self-esteem and confidence, and work on developing other coping strategies. Ask them to help you understand why and how self-harm helps them.
  • Keep an eye out for less obvious signs of self-harm, such as injuries in areas that can’t easily be seen.
  • If your child wants to look at websites offering tools to help support self-harmers, support them in doing so – but look at the sites with them, as some may inadvertently encourage self-harming behaviour.
  • If needed, give your foster child support to keep wounds clean and cared for – but allow them to take the reins. You don’t want to exacerbate the problem by taking away their control over their own body.
  • Self-harm is often accompanied by a lot of shame, embarrassment and self-hatred that can make your foster child’s feelings and actions very hard to talk about. Encourage them to talk and express themselves, and try to help your child find other ways to deal with their emotions.
  • Seek professional help. If your foster child is suffering badly enough to resort to self-harm, they need extra support from a mental health professional.

Even if your foster child is not self-harming, someone they know might be – so raise it as a topic in your household so your child knows they can talk to you.

If your child tells you that a friend or schoolmate is self-harming, think carefully before informing the parent as you will be breaking the confidence your child has shown in you. Instead, try to get permission from the friend (with your child’s help, if necessary) to talk to their parents before taking action.

Where to get help

List of resources to include:

When you join the Compass Fostering family, you’re never alone. We offer extensive and ongoing training and support to help carers deal with many difficult issues that can arise when looking after a foster child. Get in touch to find out more about becoming a foster carer with Compass Fostering.

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