Self-harm: What not to do

Mental health and wellbeing expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises teachers and school staff on what not to do if they are worried that a child is self-harming or if a student discloses to them in SecEd.

School staff often ask me what they should and shouldn’t say if a pupil talks to them about their self-harm. There is often a concern that in saying or doing the wrong thing we might make things worse. As such, I have listed some common pitfalls to avoid and outlined some more positive approaches.

Don’t judge

Many young people don’t open up about their self-harming behaviours because they’re worried that they will be judged as crazy or attention-seeking. This fear of judgement can act as a huge barrier to help-seeking and problem-sharing and being met with a judgemental attitude will result in the conversation being cut short. Instead, give the pupil the opportunity to explain their thoughts, feelings and behaviours while you listen without assumptions or judgement.

Don’t tell them to stop

Stopping the cycle of self-harm usually takes some time and can only happen once a young person has learnt to manage their thoughts and feelings in a different way.

Instead of asking the pupil to stop outright, acknowledge that this will take a little time and won’t be easy, and offer your help in finding the support and strategies they need in order to develop healthier means of coping.

Don’t panic

Learning that a young person has been harming themselves can be very distressing, but the most helpful thing you can do is to stay calm and listen. This can take your very best acting skills as you may be upset, angry or scared. 

Don’t be dismissive

The severity of self-harm does not necessarily indicate the severity of the accompanying emotional distress. If a young person has trusted you enough to share their injuries with you, no matter how superficial, their concerns warrant your attention.

Read more advice on what not to do. Self-harm: What not to do

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