Why Do People Self-Harm?
Relationship Health Perspectives


Why do People Self Harm?  Self harming behaviours of all types seen in young people and adults are a red flag for the presence of poor relationship health.

Self-harming behaviours are also a common sign that pressures have been building up over a long time.  When they are persistent they are a sign that relationship health issues have not been addressed.  So this is always a sign that action is needed by the responsible adults.  This can include the following:  

i) actions to reduce some of the demands and pressures that are currently experienced as overwhelming and

ii) actions to increase the availability of supportive adult presence whilst new skills are gained and so relationship health can improve.


The nature of the poor relationship health could be varied.

It could be
+ a strained relationship with a significant adult
+ a strained relationship between the caring adults
+ a strained relationship with a significant peer
+ a strained relationship with the self following a trauma or difficult relationships with adults
+ a combination of all the above

Self harming is generally a behaviour that brings an experience of short-term relief of internal pressure - it is soothing in the moment. Persistent self-harming is therefore an indicator that the child or young person doesn't yet have the skills or sufficient current support to manage the overwhelming feelings that have arisen via an alternative self-calming method.


How to Stop Self Harm

We can't force others to stop self-harming.   Instead if we want to support change, what is needed is to change the conditions that are fuelling the inner pressure and distress

Recommended priority steps to support a young person or adult who is self-harming include:

1) Looking at the balance and pace of the day and week to ensure that the young person's essential emotional needs are being met - are they currently safe and kept close to strong adults who are calm and care for them, are they currently involved in routines that include physical exercise and a gentle structure to the day, are their opportunities to relax together doing undemanding tasks

2) Adult Parents and Carers are advised to look at the balance and pace of their own day and week to ensure that they can make themselves available and present for the child or young person in a strong, calm and available state. 

One key detail is important.  Though this is too often overlooked, the adult learning journey and support is as important as what is put in place directly for the child.   The solution to self-harming rarely lies just in help for the child.  Instead what is vital is that the adults caring for the child or adult gain a better sense of their own role.

3) Gaining support for young people and for the supporting adults to talk about experiences and feelings that have been difficult or overwhelming.  The first priority is for everyone to learn the steps needed to restore healthier relationships in the home environment.

If self-harming behaviours are present it is very important to speak to local appropriately trained professionals.   There may be some crisis care needs.  However the longer term solutions lie in taking a deeper look at what has led to the issues.

This is a complex area of practice (our Group 3 - click here) . We are therefore not able to work with young people and parents outside our own area of Kendal but we are developing a pathway to train professionals to be able to work more effectively with these types of needs.  

A National Helpline is at: https://youngminds.org.uk

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Dr. Cathy Betoin - Relationship Health Matters

Dr Cathy Betoin
Clinical Psychologist, Teacher, Parent

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