Freedom from self-harm

Published on 10th September, 2020 by Samantha Ng

Freedom from self-harm

Finding out that your child is engaging in self-harm is a frightening and foreign experience. Many parents report feeling helpless, a sense of failure, guilt, loneliness along with intense fear. The practice of self-harming appears to be prevalent over recent years but in actual fact, it has long existed but in secrecy. The rise in prevalence of self-harming can be attributed to attention to the topic via movies and TV shows.

If your child is self-harming, there are ways to help. By coping with your own feelings, learning about self-harming, finding professional help, and just being there to love and believe in your child, you'll provide the calm, steady support that he or she needs.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm happens when someone deliberately hurts or harms themselves. Self-harm by children and adolescents most often involves the following methods:

  • overdoses (self-poisoning)
  • self-mutilation (e.g. cutting behaviours)
  • burning
  • scalding
  • banging heads or other body parts against walls
  • hair-pulling
  • biting

Self-harm becomes more common after the age of 14, but is still prevalent among younger children and teenagers.

Why do people self-harm?

Many mental health professionals believe that in most cases, youth are using self-harm behaviours as a way to try to cope with stress. Some of the reasons behind self-harm include getting relief from painful or distressing feelings, dealing with feelings of numbness, and communicating pain or distress to others. It is rarely one single event or experience that causes a young person to self-harm, but a multi-faceted combination. Research has shown that the experiences most closely linked to self-harm in young people are:

  • mental health problems (including hopelessness and depression)
  • family issues (such as parental criminality and/or family poverty)
  • disrupted upbringing (being in local authority care, parental marital problems, separation or divorce)
  • being abused
  • continuing family relationship problems

If your child or teenager is self-harming, it is not parents might feel overwhelmed, scared and confused in such a situation. While effective treatment can take a while, there are many things you can do to help your child or teen right now:

1. Show you care. Let your child or teen know that you care, “I love you and I’m worried about you.”

2. Accept your teen’s feelings. Remember that your child or teen may be feeling very stressed or upset. Ask, “How can I help?” or “How can I support you?”

3. Learn basic First Aid. Learn how to take care of any cuts or other self-injuries. For minor cuts or injuries, wash with mild soap and water so that they don’t get infected. For more serious cutting that may need medical care (like stitches), offer to take your child or teen to the nearest walk-in clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital emergency room.

4. Be non-judgmental. Let your child or teen know that if they want to talk about their self-harm (and stress), that you are ready to listen without judging. You might say: “I’m worried about you. If there’s something you want to talk about, let me know. I promise I’ll listen, and I won’t get upset or angry with you, no matter what it is. I love you no matter what.”

5. Suggest distractions. While distractions are not long-term solutions, they can be good alternatives to self-harm in the short term.

It is important to take your child or teen to see a mental health professional. Self-harm behaviours are usually treated through “talk therapies” such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). DBT is a treatment for severe and persistent emotional and behavioural difficulties, including self-harm. DBT covers four skill sets in the areas of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Emotional Regulation. Together, these skills teach patients how to recognize and accept their emotions, regulate their intensity, and respond to them without using maladaptive methods.

For self-harm, Distress Tolerance Skills have been found to be helpful to help people learn how to get through a crisis without making them worse, to accept reality as it is, and thus enable them to move forward, and to become free of the demands of their own urges and emotions.

There are several crisis survival skills within the distress tolerance module. Let’s focus on four skills. Do note that knowing these skills does not replace therapy and individualized support is required for each person:

1. The STOP Skill

Stop Do not just react. Stop! Freeze! Do not move a muscle! Your emotions may try to make you act without thinking. Stay in control!
Take a step back Take a step back from the situation. Take a break. Let go. Take a deep breath. Do not let your feelings make you act impulsively.
Observe Notice what is going on inside and outside you. What is the situation? What are your thoughts and feelings? What are others saying or doing?
Proceed mindfully Act with awareness. In deciding what to do, consider your thoughts and feelings, the situation, and other people’s thoughts and feelings. Think about your goals. Ask Wise Mind: Which actions will make it better or worse?

2. Pros and Cons

Before an overwhelming crisis urge hits Write out your pros and cons; carry them with you.
Rehearse your pros and cons over and over.
When an overwhelming crisis urge hits Review your pros and cons.
Get out your list and read it over again.
Imagine the positive consequences of resisting the urge.
Think of the negative consequences of giving in to crisis behaviors.
Remember past consequences when you have acted on crisis urges.

3. TIP your body chemistry

Temperature Holding your breath, put your face in a bowl of cold water, or hold a cold pack (or zip-lock bag of cold water) on your eyes and cheeks
Hold for 30 seconds.
Intense exercise Engage in intense exercise, if only for a short while.
Expend your body’s stored up physical energy by running, walking fast, jumping, playing basketball, lifting weights, etc.
Paced breathing Breathe deeply into your belly.
Slow your pace of inhaling and exhaling way down (on average, five to six breaths per minute).
Breathe out more slowly than you breathe in (for example, 5 seconds in and 7 seconds out).
Paired muscle relaxation While breathing into your belly deeply tense your body muscles (not so much as to cause a cramp).
Notice the tension in your body.
While breathing out, say the word “Relax” in your mind.
Let go of the tension.
Notice the difference in your body.

4. Self-soothe: Find a pleasurable way to engage each of your five senses. Doing so will help to soothe your negative emotions.

Vision Go for a walk and pay attention to what you can see.
Hearing Listen to soothing music or the sounds of nature.
Touch Take a warm bath or get a massage.
Taste Treat yourself to a small snack.
Smell Smell nature when you go for a walk or seek out other pleasurable smells e.g. freshly baked bread at the bakery.
Freedom from self-harm
Samantha Ng

About the Author - Samantha Ng

Samantha is a Senior Counselling Psychologist with an interest and specialist training in attachment based parenting. She also supports children and teenagers with a range of mental health issues.

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