Bethan O'Riordan Psychotherapist

This weeks Ask Bethan: “How can I help my child who is self-harming?”

I know from meeting parents that having a child who is self-harming or suicidal is the most frightening part of parenting any parent will ever face. I want readers to know that change is possible for you, the child and your relationship.

No parent can ever say that their child won’t self-harm or suffer with suicidal thoughts as we are all predispositioned to dark thoughts in our minds. It is essential that you and your child get help.

Self-harm takes many forms, some more obvious and some more hidden. I’d like to start by exploring this so that all parents know what behaviours to keep an eye out for. Self-harm can be (but not limited to) over or under eating, cutting, picking, hair pulling, scratching or banging body parts.  

Here’s some practical advice first: make sure your child has clean equipment that they are harming with. Reduce the chance of infection where you can.

Now let’s move on to the emotional advice. Your child and you both need separate therapy and your child may need to attend their GP. Parents need to be guided step-by-step in how to support their child by understanding what to say, what to do and how to help. I am a former therapist at Pieta House,the family therapy support was as essential as the child’s therapy.

Your child needs to learn how to feel emotions so that they are safe, and parents need to learn how to make their emotions safe. Don’t ask your child not to harm, this may make the behaviour go underground. If a child has reached the stage in their lives that they are harming it could suggest that they have moved past the point of talking with their parents; but it is possible to repair this relationship breakdown.

The most important thing a parent can do is take a step back from their family unit and observe what stress the child is absorbing. Is there something within the family, school or friendship dynamic that your child cannot tolerate? Your child may not have words for this so be their detective.

From my experience supporting parents, this is the hardest thing to do. If parents could see the relationship difficulties a child was experiencing then they would be resolved. This is why I urge parents to seek outside support for honest and constructive help in moving yourself and your child through this difficult time.

Within the home your child needs compassionate boundaries. Rules that are not authoritative but ones that support your child and keep them safe. Do not punish your child for self-harming.  I’ve met many parents who remove their child’s phone from them when they self-harm.  Guides can be put in place to help your child manage their phone use as it certainly does have an impact on their mental health, but cutting your child off from their peers may not be the answer.

Remember that this is your child’s cry for help. They are telling you in no uncertain terms that they are not okay.  For healing to take place it’s not only the child’s responsibility to change.  When parents change how they support their child an emotional container is created so that self-harm isn’t the safe place for the child, instead you are.

If you are reading this and your children are young and perhaps pickers or nail biters, try to create dialogue around it using empathy. Don’t be blunt and ask why you are picking, take the shame away from it by noticing it “oh, you’ve a cut there,” let me have a look (gently hold around the area), then help “oh, I’ve some cream that we can put on”. And soothe the feelings you see in the picking or cutting with acceptance from yourself.

Teenage self harming is often a response to early childhood experiences. When a parent develops their skills for seeing and validating their children when they are young, it helps so much in the relationship when they are older.

I remember as a young child biting my nails and being punished with horrible tasting polish. What I needed was someone to see my life and the stress I was unable to absorb and take it away.  You have that opportunity as a parent to be the detective, take the responsibility of managing that stress and helping your child move through this time in their life. 

To get support with this, or any other parenting difficulty you are facing, book your introductory call with Bethan here.

Bethan offers three supports to parents:

  1. One to one parenting consultations where we create a bespoke plan to understand what’s going on and create change. Appointment are available in person and online. Book your consultation here.
  2. The Calm Parenting Club – try Bethan’s online parenting membership free for 7 days and get the support and information you need for yourself and your family to thrive. Sign up here today.
  3. 3. One to One Counselling and Psychotherapy appointments are available in person and online for those looking to work through their inner worlds to create change. Book your appointment here.

Don’t forget your free 5 Steps to Calmer Parenting which will support you to crate change now and be the parent you’d like to be.

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