2 Aug 2017

Halting the harm

From Are We There Yet?, 11:00 am on 2 August 2017

In an increasingly anxious world, some young people are turning to self- harm. In the fifth episode of Are We There Yet ? Katy Gosset talks to parents and a clinical psychologist about how to cope with cutting.

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Photo: 123rf.com

We expected meltdowns, slammed doors and sulking. But not this.

Self-harm is the silent, scary issue no parent really sees coming.

“I was gutted, really upset. I just couldn’t understand why she was doing it and worried that it might lead to something else…[] I was sad for her.” Mother of four

“It started in a very minor way but it became an obsession. It became her way of coping with, she told me many times, the pain inside her head. So causing physical pain was a release to her.” Mother of two                                    

These mothers found ways to help their children and both daughters are on the path to recovery but one woman vividly recalls the emotion she felt upon seeing what her child had done.

“I was just devastated. I just couldn’t understand it. At first I’d get really angry.”

 Her daughter began to self-harm while in hospital receiving treatment for a serious eating disorder.

“I remember one of the first times I’d come in after she’d just done it. I just wanted it to disappear and I was quite unsympathetic with her.”

“I said] “What are you doing ? We ‘re trying to help you and here you are sabotaging it. I didn’t understand what it was about.”

sad teenage girl

Photo: Pixabay

Things got worse before they got better.

Her daughter’s self-harm culminated in two suicide attempts.

However, after medical intervention and many months away from class, the teenager has now started afresh in a new school with a different group of friends.

Yet her mother says the physical scars remain on her daughter’s body and the experience has also left its mark on those around her.

“How do you manage the stress and impact on the family ? How do you, as a working mother, manage your full-time job and still manage to rock up every morning and not fall apart. It's huge ”

She said dealing with self-harm was also lonely as many family members and friends struggled to understand and often said the wrong thing.

”Why can’t she just do this ?” or “Give her to me for a week and I’ll get her fixed.”

The mother said ultimately she ended up withdrawing socially and feeling she couldn’t keep up with friends or coffee groups.

“People ask you “How is such and such ?” and what are you going to say ? “Well, she’s terrible.” You’re not !”

A photo of a teenager from behind showing her back pack and a school yard in the back ground

Photo: 123RF

This mother's strength has come from others in the same situation who she met through a closed Facebook group: People to whom she can say anything and know they will understand.

"They don't judge you. They just accept you for who you are and say "You're OK."

"Go away and have a cry, do what you need to do, pour a glass of wine, whatever works and then put your big girl pants back on and get back up and keep going."

What to do .. or not ?

As one mother found, the key to helping her child was keeping the communication going. 

"Keep on talking to them... say "I'm there for you, you don't have to do this to yourself." Just be there for them really. You can't really do much else."

But another cautions that it's important to know what not to say. She learned that her initial reaction to her daughter's self harm was not the best way to handle things. 

"I would feel a rage of emotion. It would make me automatically burst into tears."

And she would plead with her daughter not to do it again, saying that it hurt her to see it. 

'It's really hard as a parent because its incredibly confronting when that child of yours is now doing something that is so harmful and so ugly and so destructive that your brain just goes to a different place."

But she said that was not the answer.

"If they are coming forward to you that is a cry for help right there and the worst thing you can do is to react like I did."

Principals say anxiety disorders are now more common among students and the school system is more stressful.

Principals say anxiety disorders are now more common among students and the school system is more stressful. Photo: PHOTO NZ

So How Should you React ?

Clinical Psychologist, Catherine Gallagher, says cutting is a provocative behaviour and one that needs immediate intervention.

“There’s no amount of safe self-harm so we need to deal with it.” 

“Most people who deliberately don’t harm don’t die by suicide but it is a risk factor so there’s no amount .. that we can just ignore, we need to do something about it.”

Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: RNZ / Katy Gosset

Ms Gallagher said people self-harmed for a wide range of reasons.

"I might do it to distract myself from emotional pain and give myself some physical pain. It might actually be to create pain or create a feeling.

"If I'm feeling completely numb [and] I'm doing something to create some sensation that's a way to alter my state."

She said, as a parent, it was important to acknowledge your child's distress and name what had happened.

"It's really distressing to see that you've done this and and I'm wondering how you you might have been feeling when you did that."

Ms Gallagher said others might do it to punish themselves, experiment or to resist suicide.

"So if I'm self-harming, its a way to get rid of that build up of distress that means I'm not going to do something a bit more risky."

She said, in some cases, a young person did it because they didn't know what else to do and had no other coping mechanisms.

"So it's not a simple, "They just do it 'cos they're attention seeking". That's not the case."

Keeping Calm

She said parents should communicate clearly to their children that self-harm was not OK.

"You wouldn't tolerate a stranger coming in and stabbing them.[] You'd go "No, get out, this is a safe home and I want my baby or my child to feel safe.""

Ms Gallagher said parents should explain that they would find ways to support the child in managing his or distress so that hurting themselves was no longer an option.

But she said a calm, measured approach was best, accepting that the child was upset but coming up with a plan to handle it.

She said the first step was to medically attend to any cuts but without too much attention and to take charge of the situation.

"Even though we might be completely floored when we see it, taking a deep breath and just getting in there and taking charge and saying, "Right, this is what's going to happen." 

Ms Gallagher said children would often ask that the self harm remain a secret but she warned that parents needed help too.

"It's actually just the same as if your child had a rotavirus or a medical condition, you'd go "I'm not a doctor and so for me to expect myself to be the expert in this situation and know what to do is actually too much for me."

Ms Gallagher said they should instead seek out the support and resources that would enable them to be the best, most supportive parents to their children.

*All the parents in this podcast were spoken to anonymously to protect the identity of their child

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Where to get help

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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