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When young people hurt themselves, parents often feel powerless over what they can do to help young people. In this article you will read what parents can do if their child has problems with self-harm.

 Image: Dreamstime (with licence)

This article is based on one brochure on self-harming behavior in adolescents, published under the auspices of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurios Behavior (CRP-SIB) at McGill University in the USA. 


How do I know if my child is doing self-harm?

Self-harm can be difficult to understand - even for the person affected. You do not do self-harm because you want to die, on the contrary, self-harm is an attempt to survive. Self-harm is about people who experience such high levels of stress that they do not know how to deal with it in any other way.

Many of those who have a self-harming behavior do this in secret. Although it is normal for young people to withdraw from their parents to a certain extent, it is still not common for young people to be physically and emotionally withdrawn for long periods at a time. If the young person is very withdrawn from you as a parent, this may be a first warning sign that should be taken seriously.

Other warning signs that may more directly indicate self-harm are:


  1. Cuts or burns on the arms, legs, abdomen
  2. Find hidden razors, knives, other sharp objects and rubber bands (to increase blood supply or numb the skin)
  3. Young people spend long periods alone, especially in the bathroom or bedroom
  4. Young people wear clothes that are inappropriate for the weather, such as long sleeves or trousers in hot weather

"I think one of the hardest things to understand for people who do not hurt themselves is why do you do it? But there are so many years of depression behind it. There is no simple reason, and I can not answer:" I cut because of that and that and that. "And besides, it's about how physically addictive the self-harm is. There and then it just feels so necessary and so right."

- interview subject


Common reactions in parents

When parents discover that their child is doing self-harm, it is not surprising that one can experience a variety of emotions such as shock, anger, sadness and guilt. 

  1. Shock and denial

    Because self-harm is something many young people try to hide, it can be shocking for parents to discover that their own child is intentionally harming themselves. But if you as a parent deny this, it will be overlooking that your child has a serious emotional problem. 
  2. Anger and frustration

    You may feel angry or frustrated that your child may have lied about his or her self-harm, because you experience the behavior as meaningless, or because it is all frightening to you and completely out of your control. Parents can become very anxious when their child hurts themselves, and can feel completely powerless over the situation.
  3. Empathy and grief

    You can feel sad and sad, and take a lot of the pain that your child has. Although empathy helps you understand the child's situation, excessive empathy and sadness can sometimes be difficult for the young person, because he or she may feel that he / she has to apologize and apologize for protecting you. This can increase the emotional chaos that is often the cause of self-harm.
  4. Guilt

    You may feel that it is your fault that your child is hurting yourself, or wonder if it could be your fault. You may feel that you have not done enough as a parent, and at the same time do not know what else you should have done. Many parents doubt whether they have given enough love and attention to their child. It is important to acknowledge this feeling, and to use it as a driving force to look for good solutions, but at the same time you should not give in to an excessive sense of guilt. When the adolescent harms himself or herself, there will be complicated reasons behind it, and your relationship with the child will rarely alone be able to explain why he or she harms himself or herself. 

"Parents, there is hope. If you face any of the difficulties we have ... do not give up. You have to fight. Even though many teachers, doctors and counselors do not have the knowledge or ability to help - then keep fighting. Do not give up, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel ".

- Parent of someone who hurts himself


How can I talk to the child about his / her self-harm?

It is important that you as a parent take the problem of self-harm seriously. Do not assume that the child will grow this by itself, or that the problem will disappear by itself. True, it can happen in some cases by the youth find better coping strategies, but it is by no means a matter of course that this happens.

Try to use your concern in a constructive way. One thing you can do is try to let the youth understand the impact of his or her self-harm on themselves and others.

The most important thing you can do, however, is to validate the child's feelings. That is, acknowledging that the youth is having a very difficult time emotionally, and thus signaling to him or her that the feelings are valid: Ie. that the emotions are not just something the youth "invents" to sew, complain or get attention - but are completely real experiences that the youth have.

Remember that acknowledging the difficult feelings is something completely different than acknowledging and accepting the self-harming behavior.

Some specific tips:


  1. Parents must first make eye contact and be respectful listeners before they present their opinion to the youth.
  2. Speak in a calm and reassuring way
  3. Offer your help and support to the youth
  4. Think about what was useful to you when you were a teenager and experienced difficult emotions
  5. If the youth does not want to talk, do not pressure him or her. Self-harm is a very sensitive topic, and the self-harming behavior is usually a sign that your child is having trouble putting their own feelings into words.

"... The inner pain was not real, and was not something you could heal. If I made it visible - the visible is real - then you could see it ... I needed to have the pain placed somewhere other than inside me ... "

- interview subject


What are some helpful questions I can ask my child to better understand his or her self-harm?

Remember that direct questions can feel invasive and frightening, and that it must therefore be done in a gentle and respectful way. The most productive thing can be to first focus on helping your child recognize the problem and the need to seek help.

Here are some examples of what you can say: 


  1. "How do you feel before you hurt yourself? How do you feel by that you have hurt yourself? "Try to unravel how an incident of self-harm occurs. That is, what events, thoughts and feelings came just before the child injured himself. To illuminate this layer with the youth, will in themselves increase both your and the youth's understanding of what is really going on.
  2. "How does self-harm help you feel better?" 
  3. "How is it for you to talk to me about hurting yourself?"
  4. "Is there anything really stressing you out at the moment? Is this something I can help you with?"
  5. "Is there something missing in our relationship that would make it better for you if it were in place?"
  6. "If you do not want to talk to me about this now, then I understand that. I just want you to know that I'm here for you when you decide you'm ready to talk. Is it okay if I? will check with you later if you are ready to talk or would you prefer to come to me? "

Questions of this kind can be useful in trying to understand more of the emotional reasons why the youth harms themselves, and can be the start of getting in a position for the youth (and you as a parent) to understand that he or she must seek professional help in relation to the difficulties.


What should I avoid saying to my child?

As mentioned, it is very frightening and outrageous for parents to know that their child is hurting himself. Unfortunately, parents - in their powerlessness and despair - may also react in ways that do not help the youth. The following types of behavior from the parents can increase the child's emotional chaos and indirectly also the child's self - harming behavior, and are something you should try to avoid:


  1. To shout or scold the youth
  2. To give long lectures / exhortations to the youth
  3. To physically hold the youth firmly
  4. To give harsh, unreasonable or long punishments
  5. Invading young people's privacy (eg walking through your child's bedroom without his or her knowledge)
  6. Giving an ultimatum to the youth ("If you do not stop this, then ...")
  7. threats
  8. Power struggles. Remember that you can never control another person's behavior, or to demand that your child stop self-harming behavior.
  9. The following statements are examples of things that can be unfortunate to say:

  • "I know how you feel." Such statements, even if they are not meant to be, make the child feel that the problems are being downplayed. 
  • "How can you be so crazy that you do this to yourself?"
  • "You do this to make me feel guilty."


What activities can you do with the young person that can help him / her to gain control over the impulses to harm himself / herself?

Parents need to ask for feedback from their child on how well they are doing their job as parents. This shows that you as a parent are really committed to improving and strengthening your relationship with your child. Parents can try to find very specific areas for what they can do differently to help the child get better.

Here are some tips on what to do with your youth:


  1. Make a plan for the youth that states who can be good helpers and how they can help when the youth is emotionally difficult and gets impulses to hurt themselves. The plan should specify who is available at different times during the day so that the youth can receive the necessary support - when the difficult feelings become overwhelming.
  2. If your child has already developed some effective coping strategies to deal with their difficult emotions, it may be a good idea to write these strategies down with the young person as well. In other words, a "help card" can be prepared that includes both the child's best coping strategies and telephone numbers of people who can be of support.

There is also made one own app for people struggling with self-harm and which can contribute to better coping with difficult emotions and impulses to harm oneself.

"I quit because I developed a sense of worth and, to some extent, love for myself. I also understand that it's painful for those I'm happy to know I'm hurting myself, so I've partly stopped because "I do not want them to be in pain. I have learned better coping strategies as well."

- Interview subject


Seek professional help when your child is struggling with self-harm

The most important thing to know for you as a parent, if you have discovered that your child is doing self-harm, is that it is time to seek professional help. By seeking help for these difficulties, you take the child seriously.

When the youth's self-harm is discovered - and yet professional help is not sought, this can be experienced as a kind of betrayal on the part of the youth. One person struggling with self-harm described what happened when her parents revealed that she was self-harming:

"It completely clicked for them and they made me promise that I would never do it again. I said 'yes' just to make them feel better. They calmed down with it. I felt hurt. that they did not take me seriously anymore and that they did not get me to seek help. "

- Interview subject

Even if the young person does not initially show interest in seeking help, it is important to facilitate that the young person can get in touch with the support system. Through therapy, young people can regain control of the problems that currently seem insurmountable, but be aware that it can take time - and there can be many small steps on the road to a masterful life - without self-harm.

"The therapy helped me deal with other problems, which in turn helped me to stop hurting myself. Self-harm was not the central theme in my therapy ... I hurt myself because I was depressed, so we worked to get the depression. under control, and then I stopped self-harming. "

- Interview subject 

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