Roughly one in six teens will self-harm, but there are things that parents can do to support their child in distress
More and more parents are being exposed to the realities of their teenager’s self-harm. It is a frightening and often mis-understood issue and my own research in this area showed that parents are typically shocked and disbelieving that this could be happening to their child.
Rates of self-harm among teenagers vary between 14pc and 18pc according to a range of research studies. That means roughly one in every six teenagers will self-harm. The most common form of self-harm is cutting oneself with a blade or sharp object. Self-harm usually occurs without any intention for the young person to kill themselves. Girls are more likely to self-harm than boys.
The most common reason that teenagers give (endorsed by 90pc of teenagers) for engaging in self-harm is that they feel better afterwards. The physical hurt that they inflict acts to relieve other intense emotions that would otherwise feel overwhelming. Researchers and academics refer to this as using self-harm for “affect regulation”.
More than 50pc of young people who self-harm say they do it as a means of self-punishment or that it is because of an anger they feel towards themselves. Some describe the self-harm as a means of feeling something, to counteract a dissociation or numbness. Some say they do it to demonstrate to others the emotional pain they are suffering.
Most teenagers in fact may endorse several of these reasons why they self-harm.
It is also known, from research, that self-harm is likely to be reinforcing for the teenager. If it does, for example, alleviate extreme emotional distress, then it is very likely that the teenager will self-harm again the next time their emotions build up to a very high level.
A recent systematic review (a systematic gathering and analysis of all of the relevant research on a specific topic) found that about half of all teenagers who self-harm don’t seek any kind of help. Of those that do, most confide in friends. This sometimes places an onerous burden on the friend. Other research shows that the friend who was confided in then becomes four times more likely to self-harm within a month of being told.
But, should a parent be told, or discover that their son or daughter is self-harming it does help to feel prepared to respond. There are things that parents can say or do that are supportive to any child in that level of distress.
Listening with empathy is the most powerful initial response a parent can make. Like I found with my own research, most parents are shocked themselves and often feel like their initial response may not, therefore, have been helpful. They often react by disbelieving, minimising the emotional hurt, or getting angry at their son or daughter. Needless to say, none of these are helpful.
Listening empathetically involves putting aside your own judgements and perspectives on self-harm and trying to see things from your son or daughter’s perspective instead. Knowing, as we do, that the self-harm is most likely to be motivated by a desire to relieve emotional pressure, this is a good place to start. Make good eye contact, reflect back to your child what you hear them say and then add in your own empathy statements.
Reflective listening will usually involve echoing what you hear your child say, perhaps summarising. An example of this is saying, “Just so I’m sure I heard correctly, you have been scratching your arms using a compass from your geometry box and have been doing that about once a week for the last few months.”
Empathy statements sound like, “I’m guessing that you must feel so overwhelmed sometimes” or “I could imagine that it seems like the feelings build up until you might burst”. These kinds of statements will demonstrate your understanding of how they may have felt in the lead up to self-harming. Continued lack of judgement and acknowledgement of their feelings will help.
If your teenager has come to you to tell you, then it is likely that they want your help. However, you can’t assume that they do. Spending some time trying to understand the nature and the extent of the self-harm may give you a clearer sense of what kind of help they need, and how urgently they need it.
Let them know that you care deeply about them and don’t want any harm to come to them. This is the time to be absolutely authentic and genuine in your love and care for them. While you won’t, probably, have a clue about what help is out there, you can let your son or daughter know that you will stick by them and that you can look together at what might help and how that help might be delivered. Your GP is the place to begin and she or he can refer your son or daughter to their local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).