Sometimes it can feel like life is just too hard, and problems can seem overwhelming and create intense emotional pain and distress.
In these situations, some young people may think about hurting themselves as a way to manage or reduce these feelings. This can be very confusing and confronting for them and for the people who care about them.
Self-harm refers to people deliberately hurting their bodies. It’s usually done in secret and on parts of the body that may not be seen by others. The most common type of self-harm is cutting, but there are many other ways of self-harming including burning or punching the body, or picking skin or sores.
Self-harm can be something that someone tries once, or it can become a habit as they search for relief from distress. The problem is that this relief is only temporary, and the underlying issues and emotional pain usually remain.
Why do young people self-harm?
Young people harm themselves for a variety of reasons, which can sometimes be hard to put into words. Many young people describe self-harm as a way of coping with intense pain, distress or unbearable negative feelings, thoughts or memories. Others self-harm to punish themselves due to feelings of guilt or shame, or to feel alive again. They are trying to change how they feel by replacing their emotional pain or pressure with physical pain. Some young people harm themselves because they feel alone, and hurting themselves is the only way they feel real or connected.
However, the relief someone experiences after self-harming is only short term and at some point the difficult feelings or problems usually return. With the return of these feelings often comes an urge to self-harm again. This cycle of self-harm can be difficult to break.
Is there a link between self-harm and suicide?
For most young people self-harm is a coping mechanism, not a suicide attempt. However, young people who repeatedly self-harm may also begin to feel as though they can’t stop, and this may lead to feeling trapped, hopeless and suicidal.
People who self-harm are also more likely than the general population to feel suicidal and to attempt suicide. There's also a chance they may hurt themselves more than they meant to, which increases their risk of accidental suicide.
How to talk about it
Finding out that a young person you care about is hurting themselves can be pretty hard to hear. You might not feel able to talk about it with them, or you may worry that you’ll say the wrong thing. The main thing is to be honest and open about it and to help your young person address the issue.
Even though you might not understand why your young person is hurting themselves or feel really uncomfortable, it’s important to be calm and non-judgemental when you talk things through.
You may think that this is just about seeking attention, and dismiss its importance. However, it’s important to recognise that self-harm is often a way of saying “I’m not coping with what’s going on in my life, and this is what I do to cope”. Young people need find healthier, longer-term alternatives to help them cope with difficult emotions and problems.
Self-harm is an increasingly common behaviour in young people and can be very scary for their family and loved ones. This doesn’t have to be part of their experience in the future – with the right support, they can end the cycle of self-harm.
Creating new habits
Encourage your young person to try replacing their self-harm with a few of these safer tips:
- holding ice cubes in their hand or eating a chilli – the cold and heat cause discomfort but aren’t dangerous
- wearing a rubber band on their wrist and snapping it when they feel the need
- using a red pen to draw on the areas they might normally cut
- working it off with exercise – as well as busting stress, physical activity is a good distraction
- scribbling with red pen on a piece of paper
- trying deep breathing and relaxation exercises
- focusing on something around them, something simple. Get them to watch it for a while and see if that can distract them from the negative thoughts
- talking with someone.
Sit down together and make notes in their phone of things to try next time they feel the urge to self-harm.
Giving up self-harm and developing new ways of coping with intense emotions can take time. Your young person has to find what works for them.
“Be empathic, listen, try not to judge, even when you don’t agree or understand. I really believe if that person trusted you enough to want to talk to you about something that is troubling them, then that is the simplest help you can give them.” Angela, health professional
- Encourage your young person to talk about what’s happening – with you, another trusted adult, community leader or Elder, or a health professional.
- Suggest that they see your local doctor to talk about how to look after their injuries, and avoid infection or other complications. The GP could also then talk with them about what’s going on and refer them to a suitable health professional.
- If your young person does seriously injure themselves, they need to be seen by a doctor before there can be any discussion about what will help them cope better.