Why does our teenage daughter self-harm?


Q: We think our previously happy 14-year-old daughter is self-harming. She seems to be pulling out her hair and has several grazes on her body. We don’t know what to do.

A: You are not alone: this is a growing problem in the UK and affects at least one in 15 young people, both boys and girls, according to Jane Smith, author of The Parent’s Guide to Self-Harm (Lion Hudson, £7.99*), which I suggest you read. The average age of onset is 12 years but some hospital admissions have been for children under ten. The majority never receive professional care so the burden falls on family and friends.

Many young people who self-harm come from stable, loving homes. Jane, whose two daughters were affected, says, ‘Finding out that the child you love feels driven to hurt themselves in secret comes as a huge shock; it’s heart-breaking.’

There is a wide range of severity. Self-harming can be minor and short-lived but it may also become addictive and serious.

The most common forms are self-cutting and self-poisoning (with paracetamol or other harmful substances). Other forms include pulling out hair, usually from the head or eyelashes, and body-bashing – dragging the knees across hard, uneven surfaces or throwing the body around to injure it. Burning or biting, hitting and pinching, excessive alcohol, drug-taking, bingeing and/or starving are other methods used.

Self-harming is not an attention-seeking device, as in behaviour chosen in order to focus all attention immediately on the person. It is often done as a silent and secret cry for help.

It is a method of coping with feelings that seem overwhelming. Pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins are released during self-harming, which provide a temporary sense of calm and wellbeing.

Parents can play a big part in helping their child to find alternative methods of coping. Learning to calm themselves, solve problems methodically, and think positively can help young people resist the urge to self-harm.

Talk to your child calmly and sympathetically. Read up about the issues so the behaviour is not so shocking for you. Try to understand her concerns, such as pressure of academic work, relationship problems or simply the stress of being a teenager. Some use self-harm to come to terms with family break-up, bereavement or the illness of a relative or friend.

Break down the problems into manageable parts. Listen to your daughter’s story, discuss who might be able to help, agree on who is best and how to speak to them, and whether she wants a parent to go with her. Writing it down is often helpful.

Several websites encourage children to harm themselves Check your child’s internet history, talk it through, and stop access to any such sites.

Seek professional help if the self-harm continues. Start with your GP who should be able to refer you to specialist services.


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  1. Globifer Forte by Stanningley Pharma, £18.50 for 40 tablets. Contains haem iron from animal sources such as meat, with non-haem vegetable iron. A minimum three-month course is advised.
  2. Feroglobin B12 by VitaBiotics, £5.10 for 200ml. Liquid formula with vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid, plus zinc. Suitable for vegetarians.
  3. Spatone Apple Flavour, £9.95 for 28 sachets. Absorbable and effective, without causing gastric upsets; good for pregnancy.

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Each November, Movember is responsible for men sprouting moustaches to raise vital funds and awareness of men’s health issues, particularly prostate and testicular cancer. ‘Mo Bros’ need to register with a clean-shaven face, which steadily becomes more hirsute as the days of the month clock up. Last year, Mo Bros at Associated Newspapers raised £25,000. So get your man channelling his inner Johnny Depp – or Hercule Poirot.

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