Is your teen or young person self harming?
Are you scared for your child?
Do you feel lost and alone, shocked and bewildered by your young person’s behaviour?
Do you feel like you are somehow to blame?
When a young person is self-harming it can be distressing for everyone. Most parents are shocked when they first discover their child is hurting themselves. A lot of parents feel guilty and blame themselves. They can’t understand why their child would want to do this.
It's a confusing, stressful time for the whole family. The situation can often be exacerbated by the fact that the young person might be very secretive around the behaviour – they often feel ashamed of it and want to hide it from everyone. They might do it late at night or locked in the bathroom and hide the scars with long sleeves or long pants. They might also choose to cut or burn in areas where their skin is less likely to be seen. They probably won’t want to talk about it and may even become more secretive and protective around the behaviour when you confront them.
Self-harm is becoming increasingly common.
According to the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing published last year "1 in 12 adolescents aged 12-17 have self-harmed in the past 12 months."
Many young people will experiment with the behaviour - trying it on to see what it feels like. Some will grow out of this phase, but for others it can become a “crutch” or prop that they will turn to in times of stress and emotional turmoil. For most parents, discovering a child is self-harming can lead to shock, self-doubt and sleepless nights worrying about what might happen – and what they’ve done wrong.
Self-harm is NOT the same thing as suicidality.
Although self-harm is a sign that there is something wrong, it does not mean that your child wants to end their life. Although we know from research that teens who self-harm are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, this does not mean that teens who self-harm will develop more serious problems, especially if they get help early.
The good news is that with the help of a compassionate and understanding therapist, your child can get back on track - and you can have peace of mind knowing that your teen is developing a healthier sense of self that includes better ways of coping.
I have worked with many parents both in my private practice and throughout my employment in public mental health. Many of them were struggling with the emotional (and practical) crisis of an inpatient psychiatric admission. I understand the effects that a young person’s illness can have on family relationships and I have helped parents in their struggles to understand and accept their child’s illness, whilst also working with them to facilitate change and healing.
what is your approach to self-harm treatment and how can you help my child?
When you bring your child to me, I will do a thorough assessment, which will involve talking to them and to you about what is going on in the family and your teen’s world.
As we work, I will help them develop skills that will allow them to self-soothe and distract themselves so that they have something to turn to when they are feeling overwhelmed, instead of self-harming.
As the therapy unfolds I will work to understand what is going on underneath your child’s self-harming behaviours, why they are self-harming, and what we can do to help them manage their emotions in a more constructive way. As self-harm is a complex behaviour, each individual needs to be assessed and treated individually. Self-harm is not meant to be manipulative nor is it necessarily a cry for help. For most young people it is a way of managing distressing feelings and strong emotions.
I have worked with many parents in situations just like yours. It's a stressful time and I will make sure your child gets the most out of our sessions and develops the skills necessary to help themselves.
What if its my fault?
Blaming ourselves never achieves anything, but it can be a natural response for parents. I have worked with many parents in this situation and it can be hard for them to understand and to accept that their child might need help. My role is not to “take sides” or to set one family member against others and the therapy is designed to help you and your teen become closer – not further apart.
In order for the therapeutic relationship to work, your child must be able to trust me. This may involve them telling me things that they have not told you and that may include things that they dislike about their family. They may not be ready for you to hear all of that. My overall aim is to create better family bonds and with time the hope is that your teen will feel more comfortable talking to you about what is going on for them. All adolescents have “I hate you” moments – they are learning to become themselves and this can involve being strident and at times, perverse. As they mature and as the therapy progresses, they will become more comfortable with themselves – and with you. I aim to get your teen to a place where they will confide in you and where your relationship can be meaningful and enjoyable – for both of you.
can therapy make things worse?
Sometimes, therapy can open up painful emotions and in order for it to be successful, these need to be explored. This means that your child may not always feel “better” after each individual session. The therapy is designed to give your child the tools they will need to help themselves and I will support them to be able to use these between sessions. Over time, therapy will allow your child to become more settled, more self-aware and more able to tolerate strong emotions. The emotions won’t go away but your teen will learn to understand, accept and “sit with” difficult feelings and be more comfortable with themselves so that they can better deal with things that upset them.
Rest assured that I provide a safe and secure environment for your child and I will encourage them to disclose their fears and worries, and most importantly, the reasons for their self-harming.
What if there is something more seriously wrong with my child?
This is a very common fear and can prevent parents from seeking help as they may be scared about what therapy might uncover. If something more serious is going on it is better to find out early and get it treated, rather than leave it. Recent research has confirmed that many more serious mental health issues will begin to manifest in adolescence. When this happens, young people can miss out on all the stepping stones and opportunities that unfold at this time (relationships and friendships, school, career and university). Their trajectory into adult life can be “derailed” by illness. That is why it is vital to get help early, before things get too overwhelming. My aim as a therapist is to find out what is wrong and if there is something more serious underlying your child’s self-harm, then we will work through that together.
I’ve heard that therapy is expensive – How will I afford all this – especially if it takes a long time?
As a social worker, I am committed to making therapy affordable for everyone. I offer Medicare rebate-able sessions to eligible clients, and am able to bulk bill those with a health care card. If money is providing an obstacle to beginning (or continuing) therapy, we can discuss how to make it more affordable for you.
Psychotherapy is an investment in your adolescent, your family and your relationships. By helping your teen develop more self-awareness and better coping strategies, you are investing in their future – and yours.
As they develop and mature through therapy they will use these new skills to better cope with life’s challenges and to help them create a fulfilling and meaningful life, including all the things that make life enjoyable. Investing in your child’s health now will help them avoid more serious problems (and more expensive treatment) in the future – and help you and your family create a happier home life.
How effective is psychotherapy in helping teens who are self-harming and how does it work?
There is good evidence for psychotherapy as a treatment for self-harm and it works by providing your child with the tools and self-awareness they need to manage their emotions. It has been proven to assist with issues like self-harm because it treats not just the symptoms, but the underlying reasons for the behaviour, to ensure lasting change.
A young person coming to see me can expect to find a compassionate and empathetic listener who can provide them with the tools they need to develop self-awareness and better coping strategies.
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Art Therapy for Self Harm
My background is in visual art as well as having experience in public mental health and social work and I use art to help young people find non-verbal ways to express themselves. This can assist when they don't know how to talk about their emotions and what is going on for them.
Sometimes art can also help them cope outside sessions when they are feeling overwhelmed and don't know what to do.
As part of the art therapy I will encourage your teen to develop some coping strategies such as keeping a visual journal and developing a daily drawing practice to allow them to express their feelings - they don't need to be highly skilled. They can then bring these into sessions to talk about them.
Developing strategies like these will also add to their “go to” toolbox for use when they are feeling overwhelmed instead of relying on cutting or other self-harming behaviours.
Take the Steps to Help your Teen Heal now
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