Updated: Apr 11
It’s self-harm awareness day today, which necessitates a talk about the topic and a sharing of information regarding self-harming behaviour in children and teenagers around the globe. This blog will serve to inform on the awareness, understanding, identification and prevention of self-harming behaviour, in addition to how you can help someone who you find to be struggling with it.
Awareness Firstly, it needs to be brought to attention how prevalent self-harming behaviour is in children and teenagers, in order to realise the need to understand it in detail. It has been found that 17% of the adolescent population engage in self harming behaviour at least once in their lifetime. In addition to this, children may start to engage in self harm behaviour at the age of 13. Moreover, in most self-harm cases where the individual decides to seek help, they usually turn to their friends in lieu of professionals. The likelihood of this happening currently stands at 50%. Statistics on self-harming behaviour may be confusing to most, but they need to be shared in order to understand the urgency of the situation. Bringing these cold, hard facts to light will definitely help in making meaningful change.
Understanding On establishing the reality of the situation regarding self-harm, it is easier to understand what it may entail. Occasionally known as self-mutilation, self-harm is defined by the actions undertaken by individuals that leads to bodily damage. Deliberate self-harm includes cutting, scratching, burning skin or any other behaviour that leads to physical pain. This also involves the compulsive hair-pulling (trichotillomania), self-poisoning and alcohol abuse, although the latter only produces self-harm as a secondary product, not often being the main object of
the individual consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Drug misuse may also fall under this category of self- harm that isn’t usually the reason for which the individual consumes it. The reasons for engaging in self-harming behaviour are specific to the individual. Self-harm may be the result of mental health imbalances such as depressive disorder and anxiety, as a product of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia, or as a symptom of borderline personality disorder.
Apart from diagnosed mental health issues, self-harm may be the result of overwhelming stress, where the child or teenager sees it as a momentary release from the extremity of the emotions they feel. It could also be their way of responding to their circumstances, for instance if they recently suffered a bereavement or a breakup. They may use it as a coping mechanism or buffer between them and whatever difficult situation they may be facing. In addition to this, it could be their way of feeling in control of their lives when everything feels like it’s changing. Aside from identifiable reasons like external change and the death of a loved one, social pressures like being bullied in school and exploring sexual identity could also cause confusion and stress that lead to self-harm. The most important point to take away from attempting to understand self-harm is that you should never make assumptions or try to link a child’s self-harming tendencies as the result of a definitive factor, as this may make them feel misunderstood and be counterintuitive.
Identification The key to identifying self-harming behaviour is observation. If you suspect that self-harming behaviour is taking place, looking for signs like covering up even in warm weather may help in easing into a talk with the child about what they’re going through. Another sign may be cuts or marks on the skin that can’t be explained off as an accident. Although less observable if they are actively trying to hide it, other signs include expression of a wish to ‘end it all’, large amounts of alcohol being consumed consistently, a hesitation to talk about their feelings, an increasing wish to stay indoors, extreme changes in eating habits (which could lead to visible weight gain or loss), and verbal expression of hating themselves. In addition to this, they may seem to be ‘down’ much more, which can be a symptom of depression, with increasing tearfulness and a lack of motivation to complete day-to- day tasks.
Help and Support The most crucial point to understand despite possible reasons for self-harm is that when you identify self-harm behaviour in a child, draw uninformed conclusions based on their life situation. This means that outward appearances can be deceiving, and any child who engages in self-harming behaviour, whatever their reason, must be guided to a path of healthy recovery. Their feelings are valid, and this must be explicitly expressed, because negative connotations like self-harm being a mode of attention-seeking can be highly detrimental to the fragile mental health of a child or teenager. They could be introduced to distracting techniques such as exercise or verbal expression, including talking to someone, shouting or singing when they feel the urge to self- harm. Parents and guardians may also contact the YoungMinds Parents Helpline on 0808 802 5544 for further advice and support on helping their children overcome self-harming behaviour.
Prevention Of course, preventing self-harm before it happens is a blessing in and of itself as it saves both the child and the guardian the pain and the journey of recovery. Preventing self-harm from occurring involves regular mental health check-ups, which could include anything from an honest conversation the child could have with their guardian about how they’re feeling to having a scheduled meeting with a therapist about their life circumstances. The key to this is consistency and regularity, in addition to creating a safe space where the child is able to voice their opinions and concerns and expect a welcoming, open attitude to towards it. If any single point is to be kept in mind after reading this article, it is that while self-harm remains a prevalent behaviour in children and teenagers, it is entirely possible to help them overcome this obstacle with the right guidance and support. Patience is important, as is constant monitoring of what you say when trying to help. If you consistently engage with their emotional state and give them all the support they need, self-harm could be removed as a coping mechanism and healthier methods can replace it.
If you or someone you know needs help, listed below are free, licensed services you may use:
YoungMinds Crisis Messenger Text YM to 85258 to speak to a trained volunteer about how you’re feeling
Childline Chat or call 0800 1111 to talk to a counsellor
Call your local NHS mental health support line for support at any time of the day
If you need immediate support that needs medical attention, call 999.
Written by Mishani N.