PARENTS

Why Do Children Self Harm?

26/11/2013 22:23 | Updated 22 May 2015

Teenage girl wearing a red hoodie looking down, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

"Most people would scream if they burnt their arm on the hob. But for me, it gave me a huge sense of relief and before long, I was doing it at least once a day when nobody was looking.

"Everything else in my life – especially to do with my friends – felt so awful and the combination of the pain and rush of adrenalin that burning myself provided, distracted me from those awful feelings. At times, it felt like the only thing I was in control of."

It would come as a shock to most of us to hear such words come out of anyone's mouth, but Amy, who is now 16, was just 10 years old when she started self harming.

No wonder her mother was so shaken up when she found out. "I thought I could cope with anything, but this knocked me for six and I didn't know where to turn, particularly when the GP's only advice was to hide all sharp instruments in the house," says Nicola, 44.

"You can't hide the cooker and in any case, I felt that was treating the symptoms, not the problem. My friends just stared in amazement when I turned to them and so I felt alone and helpless."

Amy and Nicola's story is far from unique, with new official figures showing a 30% rise in the number of 10 to 14 year-olds who self-harm.

The research also reflects Nicola's experience, highlighting an enormous lack of confidence among parents and professionals about how to deal with it.

"We get more and more parents contacting us about their children self-harming and those children are getting younger," confirms Wendy Evans, spokesperson for Family Lives. "Many times, these parents tell us that they have talked to professionals who don't take it as seriously as they'd have liked. This worries us, particularly given that younger children are less likely to know the point at which self-harm may be fatal."

Also like Nicola, many of these parents have a complete mental block when it comes to self-harm. "There's something about self-harm that goes against nature," says Evans.

Even when GPs do take self-harm seriously, they often measure the emotional distress by the severity of the scars, says Rachel Welch, project manager at www.selfharm.co.uk. "This is misguided because a young girl cutting herself down to the bone isn't necessarily any more distressed than a girl of exactly the same age scratching her wrist."

She adds that referral times are often up to 18 weeks. "By that time, the young person may have lost the nerve or confidence to talk about it."

Welch isn't convinced that we are seeing a dramatic rise in self-harm among young people. "Self-harm has always been around. It's just that they can now seek help from the kinds of charities that didn't exist years ago, like ChildLine," she believes.

But Sue Minto, head of ChildLine, thinks there are several reasons why they are experiencing more cases. Families are increasingly fragmented and the inequality gap is widening, she says, pointing out that children under 12 are particularly likely to internalise stress and conflict at home.

She adds that our society is increasingly obsessed with image (which may account for why girls are more prone) and that our young people are growing up in a 24/7 online culture for the first time ever.

"You can't escape at home from bullying these days. Before you know it, something you said in confidence to one friend, or something unkind that someone else has said about you, is up there in neon lights, for anyone to read for any amount of time," she explains.

There's also the fact that self-harm is talked about more than ever – both in the media and in conversations. "Whilst this is clearly a good thing, it does mean it's more likely to be on the menu of options for young people," she says.

There's even copy-cat self-harming and pro-self-harm websites.

The best thing that concerned parents can do is look out for early signs, says Welch. These signs include uncharacteristically withdrawn, irritable or secretive behaviour and wearing long sleeves and long trousers all the time, even in warm weather.

"Be mindful that self-harm isn't just cutting," she says. "Other self-harming behaviour includes pulling hair, bruising, scratching and I once knew someone who wore shoes a size too small to inflict pain that reminded her of how worthless she felt. Eating disorders and binge drinking also fall under the banner of self-harming behaviours to cope with chaos in their lives."

Your next step is to get help for your child. "If you do come up against brick walls with medical professionals, look for advice on websites like ours," says Welch.

Talk in confidence to the school, she adds. "Your child spends a huge chunk of time in the care of their school and you can work together to help your child through this."

Don't forget to ask your child what he or she wants too. "It's essential to let them feel they have some control over this," says Welch, who adds that their priority will inevitably be getting to the root of the problem.

"Indeed, you need to understand that self-harm is how your child is choosing to deal with their emotions at the moment. Your focus needs to be less on what they are doing and more on how they are feeling. Locking up sharp objects won't actually deal with the underlying cause."

Many young people report that a therapeutic environment with like-minded people can help. Chloe, 17, who started self-harming when she was 12, explains, "I completely refused all counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy. I was very angry because it wasn't my choice.

"Eventually, what sorted me out was the friends I made at college and a local therapeutic group, where I met others like me who genuinely understood. Also, rather than saying, 'This is terrible, you need to stop right now,' which is what everyone else said, they said, 'This is a coping mechanism. It's not great, but we need to work out what's caused it and find other ways for you to cope. In my case, writing things down, talking to others and squeezing ice cubes can help. I self-harm a lot less now and I do feel I'm starting to move on."

Get support for yourself as a parent, adds Welch, ideally someone outside the family, who isn't too emotionally connected to your child. "This will provide a space for you to be looked after, which is crucial."

Refrain from getting too emotional in front of your child, she says, and avoid phrases such as "Promise me you'll stop" or "Do it for me" as it's not that straightforward.

"Phrases like those will only heap more guilt on them. They need to be finding ways to deal with their emotions – not yours."

The good news is that most young people do stop self-harming in early adulthood, if not before, and often abruptly. But this shouldn't be a reason not to take it seriously. Not only can it have fatal consequences, but people can relapse, says Sophia Gill, 34, who started self-harming when she was 14 and who has since published a book called 101 Distractions from Depression, Self-Harm and Other Soul Destroyers.

"When I was about 26, I found myself heading down the self-harm path again and the reason was Facebook. I hadn't kept in contact with my old school friends for a good reason, but suddenly there I was looking at their posh houses and their children and all those feelings of inadequacy and being judged came back. It shocked me how quickly I spiralled back down."

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