Self-harm and suicidal thinking are sadly not uncommon among teenagers. One quarter (25.5 per cent) of 11 to 16-year-olds with a mental disorder have self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point, compared with 3 per cent of those not diagnosed with a mental disorder, new data from NHS Digital suggests. Among 17 to 19-year-olds with a mental disorder, nearly half (46.8 per cent) have self-harmed or made a suicide attempt.
For parents it can be hard to know whether your child is struggling. Young people tend to hide their behaviours and thoughts, says Rick Bradley, operations manager for charity Addaction, as they fear being negatively judged or punished, or might be embarrassed or confused about why they are feeling or acting that way.
But there are signs, which parents can be vigilant for, that show something is amiss. “Look out for changes in behaviour and mood, perhaps an increase in them wanting to be on their own,” Bradley advises. “These can of course be typical signs that you are parenting an adolescent but the more time you spend together, the easier it can be to tell if something is wrong.”
Parental intuition can be super important in determining whether something is wrong. But if you’re unable to read your child, there are some physical changes which are worth keeping an eye out for such as marks or scars on their body, or if they change their eating or sleeping patterns or become more withdrawn.
Other signs that something isn’t quite right include if they’re regularly tearful or irritable, they have worries that stop them from carrying out day-to-day tasks, and they no longer enjoy activities they used to enjoy.
If you notice any of the above it’s a good idea to talk to your child about how they’re feeling, says Jo Hardy, head of parent services for the charity YoungMinds. The most important thing you can do is create a comfortable environment where your child has time and space to be with you, and feels they can talk to you about any issues.
Bradley suggests doing more shared activities together, like watching TV or cooking. “Sometimes they will talk, other times they might not, but offering this opportunity is a great start,” he says.
Helpful tips for talking about mental health
:: Consider the language you use when speaking to your child.
:: Be receptive without being judgmental. You might not understand why they feel the way that they do, but it’s important to listen.
:: If you choose to make the first move, don’t force the issue.
:: Tell them that you’re worried about them and ask if there’s anything wrong.
:: Constantly remind them that they’re cared for and that you love them. Often young people who are self-harming can feel ashamed, so listen to them and reassure them that you are still proud of them.
If you’re quite sure that something isn’t right and your child is refusing to open up, Hardy advises parents to be bold and take that first step, opening up dialogue. “It can be a hard thing to bring up, but the important thing is to make sure that your child knows that you love them and that you want to help them with whatever they are going through,” she explains.
If your child is self-harming, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are also experiencing suicidal thoughts, but it’s important to get them some mental health support. Hardy adds: “Visit your GP with your child if they are willing to come along, and if not, document the changes you have seen in your child’s mood and discuss that with the GP yourself.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: [email protected]
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.