Self-Harm FAQ's for Loved Ones

Self-harm is a coping strategy which helps people to deal with distressing thoughts and emotions. Parents, carers, family members and friends often have a lot of questions about self-harm. This resource covers some of the most frequently asked questions that we hear.

Stay calm and reassure them that you are there to listen. Try not to focus too much on the self-harm, but more on how they are feeling. Ask them how they were feeling before they self-harmed and how the self-harm may be helping. It can be helpful for both of you to understand the underlying emotions and reasons for self-harm, but this can take some time. Try not to rush trying to ‘get to the bottom of things’.

It can be very frustrating if your loved one doesn’t want to speak to you about why they are self-harming. This can be particularly difficult if you feel like you would usually have a good relationship with your loved one. Here are some tips for speaking to your loved one in this situation:

  • Focus on building your relationship first. Building trust and a sense of safety will help your loved one to feel more comfortable to open up.
  • Ask them about how things are going generally in their life and focus on how they are feeling.
  • Try and encourage your loved one not to spend too much time on their own and find ways to encourage them to become more involved in family life or friendship groups. Keep in mind that they might still need space and time to themselves, so try to find a balance.
  • Try and increase the amount of time that you spend alone with your loved one. It may help to spend time with them outside the home. For instance, go for a walk, or a drive, or shopping or out to a café.
  • If your loved one does start opening up about their concerns, it is important not to interrupt them and jump to conclusions. Listen to them and hear what they have to say.
  • They still may not want to speak to you. Remind them that you are there to talk if they change their mind in the future.
  • You could suggest that they write you an email, letter, text or voice note if they are finding it difficult to talk face-to-face. You could also suggest that they speak to another trusted family member or friend if they might find this easier.

Remember, talking about self-harm can be very difficult. Try to encourage your loved one, but keep in mind their need for space and time to process their feelings.

It is best not to remove anything that your loved one uses to harm themselves or look after themselves following a self-harm incident. Removing these items can make them feel that they have done something wrong or ‘bad’ and leave them feeling more distressed. Self-harm is a coping strategy.  Removing your loved one’s coping strategy that currently works for them may result in them adopting an alternative, and potentially more dangerous, way of coping.

It can be difficult not to constantly check on your loved one, however, it is important to give them their own space. Try to find a balance between monitoring what they’re doing and respecting their privacy. If you are going to be checking in on them, remind your loved one that you are checking in because you care about them and want to support them.

The underlying reasons why a person self-harms are unlikely to be related to ‘normal’ relationship ups and downs. Self-harm is only part of your relationship with your loved one, which means that day-to-day ups and downs are still going to happen. Having difficult conversations, or sharing your feelings with your loved one, for example around household chores, would not cause them to self-harm. However, it is important not to show anger or frustration  in response to their self-harm behaviour. This could lead them to feel guilty, ashamed, confused, frustrated etc., and might result in them struggling to find a new way to cope with their feelings.

It is understandable to be concerned about your loved one’s internet usage. There are websites/blogs that ‘glamorise’ self-harm and there are online chatrooms that some people would view as unsafe. On the other hand, the internet can be a useful tool for people to learn about things on their own and even seek advice.

Taking away your loved one’s phone, tablet or internet device is not recommended, as most people can access the internet in another way, e.g. on a friend’s device, etc. Instead, this is an opportunity to discuss internet safety with your loved one. Installing website access controls on the device can make internet usage safer. Additionally, you may wish to restrict the amount of time that your loved one can spend online, while encouraging them to engage in other activities.

In most cases, self-harm is a temporary response to distress. Most people will, over time, find new coping mechanisms or find themselves in new life circumstances where they no longer feel the need to self-harm.

Although some people who self-harm may have thoughts about suicide, this is not always the case. Self-harm tends to be a coping strategy which may actually help prevent a person from contemplating suicide. A key distinction is that self-harm is often about experiencing and expressing feelings, whereas a suicide attempt often expresses a desire to no longer experience feelings.

Supporting anyone with their mental health can be extremely difficult. Supporting a loved one who self-harms can be particularly stressful and can take a toll on our mental health and wellbeing. Our Looking After Yourself resource has some tips on how to take care of yourself, as well as some resources that you can use to support your own mental health and wellbeing.


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