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My daughter is self-harming

“My daughter is self-harming and I don’t know how to help. I can’t understand why she’s doing it. Is this something she has copied from friends? I’m a single dad and no clue what it’s like to be a teenage girl.” 

I’m so sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling. If you have no experience with self-harm, it can be baffling to work out why someone would deliberately hurt themselves. And, of course, when it is our child who is being hurt, that can trigger some very deep and instinctive responses in us.

Right now, I don’t know why your daughter is self-harming, and nor do you. The first step is to have a calm, open and non-judgmental conversation with her. Not a conversation that is trying to fix the situation – a learning conversation in which you try to understand what is motivating her self-harm.

Be honest. Explain that this is not something you have experience in, that you’ve never been a teenage girl and that you don’t know what it’s like to be her. But that you want to try and understand. Keep your voice low and slow. Leave lots of spaces for her in the conversation (it might take her time to find words and courage) – this will also give you a chance to breathe and regulate your own build up of emotion.

You could ask some gentle questions around whether there are specific thoughts or feelings or situations that tend to trigger her self-harming? Does it tend to happen at a particular time? How is she feeling just before she self-harms? How does she feel afterwards?

There are many reasons that people self-harm. Often, it is a coping strategy that brings temporary relief to overwhelmingly difficult feelings or intrusive thoughts. However, there might be other reasons too –  for example, around the need to feel in control, self-punishment, wanting to be disfigured or trying to communicate.

If you are going to help your daughter, it’s really important to understand not just why your daughter is self-harming (the trigger) but what she is getting from the self-harm (the effect). I know that might sound odd, but self-harm tends to be cyclical. Difficult thoughts/feelings build up to a crisis that is alleviated in some way through self-harm. However, these unmanageable thoughts/feelings then build up again. The relief is only temporary and the self-harm is repeated in the next crisis.

By talking calmly and curiously with your daughter, you may be able to help her identify and understand this cycle – which is the first step towards breaking it.

You might not get far in a single conversation but, however far you get, remember to thank your daughter for her trust and reassure her that you’re there for her. Remember, the calmer, safer and less judged she feels talking to you, the more likely she is to turn to you in crisis.

Signal clearly that you are listening by repeating back to her what she says (without judgement or comment). “So, the feelings build up until it feels like the only way to stop them is to bruise yourself. Have I understood that right? And then you feel calmer?” I know you want her to stop the self-harming but try not to rush and be mindful to manage your own anxiety (breathe!). It might take a few tries to help your daughter feel confident that she can tell you the truth.

Once you have got a better understanding as to why your daughter is self-harming, then work with her to see if there are ways to disrupt the self-harm cycle. Ask her what she thinks might help. Perhaps you could make some tentative suggestions about tackling it from one or more of these angles?

  • Perhaps she could get some professional help to help resolve the underlying big feelings or difficult thoughts that are driving the cycle?
  • Perhaps she could find ways to manage those intrusive thoughts/feelings as they start to build up? Ask her if there is anything that already helps (so you have something to build on). Ideas like exercise, meditation, art, music etc can be helpful here.
  • Is there an alternative action (not self-harm) she could take in a crisis moment which might offer a healthier means of alleviation? You could create a safety plan together for crisis moments.
  • Could she distract or delay the urge to self-harm until it passes? Even learning to do this for one minute might help her over the peak of the crisis. (There is a helpful video by Pooky Knightsmith on this: 12 ways to get through the next minute when you feel the urge to self-harm).

Gently persist if she is unwilling to try anything. There is no single solution. The reason your daughter is self-harming is unique to her and what works to support her will be unique too. You will need to work with her to explore options.

Supporting someone we love who is self-harming can be exhausting. It is not easy managing our own reactions and emotions as parents and there are likely to be steps backwards as well as forwards. So, it is really important that you look after yourself too. You need to remain hopeful and continue to signal to your daughter your faith in her, that she is resilient and that together you will find a way to get through this.

There are some resources on the Young Minds website that you might find it helpful to explore. Make sure your daughter is aware that she can text SHOUT any time to get support (text SHOUT to 85258) or she can phone Childline on 0800 1111. SelfHarmUK provides advice, information and online support specifically for young people who self harm.

Self-harm and suicidal thoughts don’t always coincide but do take any talk of suicide seriously and reach out for medical support. If at any time you feel your daughter is at risk of immediate or serious harm call the emergency services (999).  See also this list of resources for supporting children and teenager’s mental health.

We offer specialised 1-2-1 support for parents of children/teens experiencing anxiety. Details here

advice for a parent whose daughter is self-harming

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