How to help a family member who is self harming

It can be worrying knowing a family member is harming themselves, especially when it’s a sibling or parent

Written by spunout


Finding out that a family member is self harming can be upsetting. It’s hard to know that someone close to you is hurting themselves, and it might be difficult to understand.

People often turn to self harm as a way to cope with difficult emotions. It can happen because of stress, anxiety, mental health issues, bullying – there are many reasons why a person engages in self harm. Self harm can affect anyone.

Understanding why a family member engages in self harm

If someone you care about is self harming, you may have a lot of questions. It can be hard to understand why they do it, and they may never really be able to give you an answer.

As you come to terms with what is happening, it’s a good idea to learn more about self harm. Taking time to educate yourself can help you to support your family member through this difficult time and get them the help they need.

Read more on what is self harm, why people self harm, myths about self harm, and what to say to someone who self harms.

How to support a family member who engages in self harm

Having a support system can help those experiencing mental health issues and self harm with their recovery. Here are things you can do to help your family member:

Let them know you’re there

When someone is experiencing a mental health difficulty, it can be hard for them to reach out and let someone know what’s going on. They might be worried about how the other person is going to react or if they’ll judge them. Sitting down and letting them know you’re there for them can make it easier for them to come to you when things get tough.

If this conversation is new for you, take some time to learn about how to talk to someone when you’re worried about their mental health and what to say to someone who is self harming.

Try not to be judgemental

There are a lot of myths around self harm, and some people can have a judgmental attitude towards people who do it. You may not understand why they are self harming, and it might even make you frustrated or angry, but it’s important to remember that they are going through a tough time, and judging them is not going to help.

Instead, it’s better to have compassion and to acknowledge that anyone turning to self harm could be struggling and in need of support.

Encourage them to seek professional help

This situation is difficult for someone to deal with alone, and even with the support of family and friends, professional help might still be needed in order to make sure they have the right support. Encourage them to speak to their GP about what’s going on so that they can be referred to a mental health service in your area.

Pieta House offer advice and support to those who are engaging in self harm and their family members. They have centres around Ireland that offer free therapy sessions to help the person through their self harm. You can offer to call Pieta on their behalf at 1800 247 247 and you can also accompany them on their visit.

There may come a time when they have harmed themselves badly and need medical help straight away. At times like this, it is important to contact emergency services straight away.

Accept that recovery may take time

It may take some time for the self harm to reduce or come to an end. There might be times when they are doing really well, but could have moments where they relapse back into self harming. Setbacks are a natural part of creating new behaviour patterns, so try not to be too discouraged by them. As difficult as this can be to observe, it’s important that you continue to support them through all of the ups and downs. While it might take time, recovery is possible.

Help them make a plan

It is good if your family member can recognise the warning signs and have a plan so that they know how to deal with impulses and urges. Finding distraction techniques and working on developing healthier ways to cope with difficult emotions can help to reduce the self harm.

Ask them if they want to develop a plan so they know what to do the next time they have an impulse or urge to self-harm. It could be doing something with their hands such as drawing or knitting, or it could mean getting up and going for a walk. Let them know they can come to you if they need a distraction, or that you’re willing to help them find new ways to resist their urges.

Remember, everyone is different and what works for one person might not work for the next. Have patience with them while they try to figure out what works best for them.

What to do in a self harm emergency

Dealing with a self harm emergency can be frightening and stressful. If your family member has badly injured themselves, seek medical attention immediately. If you’re in a position to do so, take them to the closest emergency room. Otherwise, call 999 or 112 and ask for an ambulance.

Learn more about what to do in a self harm emergency so that you can be prepared if it ever happens. You might also want to learn about how to take care of self harm wounds.

Look after yourself

Knowing that someone you care about is hurting is very difficult, and it can take a toll on your mental and emotional wellbeing. Try to take time to yourself and find ways to relax. If you need to talk, reach out to someone – whether that’s a friend, another family member, a counsellor, or a support service.

Looking after yourself means you are in a better position to support the person you care about.

You can call Samaritans any time of the day or night at 116 123 or email [email protected]

If you are a young Traveller and would like to speak to a counsellor who specifically works with the Travelling Community, the Traveller Counselling Service can support you. The service works from a culturally inclusive framework which respects Traveller culture, identity, values and norms and works from a perspective of culture centred counselling and psychotherapy. They offer counselling both in person and online.

Feeling overwhelmed or want to talk to someone right now?

There are several different ways to support someone who is self harming. You may need to try a few different methods and supports before finding the one the works for you. For information on self harm reduction and finding supports visit our Mental Health section

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