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How do I get help for self harm when my parents think it is attention-seeking?

Jenny Flannagan photo Jenny Flannagan · 21 Dec, 2020

I have been self-harming for about two months now and yesterday my dad came in while I was cleaning my teeth and he saw my arms but didn’t say anything. I think my mum knows as well but has also said nothing, and I know she thinks self-harm is always attention-seeking. How can I get help when they will just ignore the fact I need it? I can’t go through school because the counsellor has to tell my parents as well.

Sophie, 17

Hi Sophie,

I’m really sorry to hear that you’re struggling and that self-harm has become a part of your story. I obviously don’t know the story behind it, but I know there always is one, and I’m sorry to know you’re struggling.

If I understand the situation, you think your mum and dad realise that you’re self-harming but haven’t said anything to you, and you believe your mum thinks that self-harm is always attention-seeking. That sounds hard and lonely - especially because no-one in the family is talking to each other about it. We can’t begin to understand one another without being able to talk to one another. I wonder who might make the first move.

Do you think it might be possible to say something to your parents - especially given that they already know what’s happening? I guess there’s no way of knowing what they really think without talking about it. It’s possible that they’re really scared and worried and don’t know what to do. It’s one thing to have an opinion about self-harm, but a totally different thing when it’s your own child is struggling with it. I would guess your parents might be struggling with all kinds of thoughts and feelings about it all.

Maybe it might be possible to choose a good time to talk to them? - you could let them know that there’s something particular you want to talk to them about, in private, and that you know it might be a hard conversation, but that you need them to listen. Then you could think in advance about what might be important to say. It might include things like the fact that you’re pretty sure they’ve seen your scars, and that you know from things they’ve said before that they might think self-harm is about attention-seeking. But then you also have a chance to say things you want them to hear - like the fact that you want some help and support with what you’re going through, and it would mean a lot if they were able to support that decision, and to take it seriously. You could mention the school counsellor as a possible way forward?

If it’s a helpful thing to mention, you could tell them that the majority of self-harm is carried out in private and kept secret - so it’s the opposite of attention-seeking! It’s most often a way that people try to cope with painful experiences and feelings.

You might know too that we run an online support program for young people struggling with self-harm called Alumina. You can access it without your parents’ involvement and lots of young people find it a really supportive space to help them work out how to move towards a life free from self-harm. You can sign up here.

I hope you can find a way to access help and support Sophie, to make your way to a life free from self-harm. And I hope that along the way it is possible to have a conversation with your parents about it.

Jenny x

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