Supporting parents when their children are self-harming

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School staff have reported that self-harm amongst students is on the increase. It’s a safeguarding concern that can be particularly difficult to understand and deal with. Samantha Garner considers not only what schools can do but what the impact can be on parents too.

Summary

  • Students should be consulted before parents are contacted.
  • Parents should be approached carefully and information shared with consideration of its impact.
  • Planning support should be done as a group with the involvement of the student.

When students self-harm, it can trigger a wide range of emotions for us as education staff. We will want to ensure that we support the student in the right way, that we follow safeguarding rules and that we don’t make things worse. Sometimes we may also want to pass responsibility to others as soon as possible, understandably out of fear.

Very often this means ringing parents at the first opportunity. However, sometimes in our haste, we have to question whether ringing parents immediately is the right thing to do, for two reasons. Firstly, for safeguarding reasons; secondly, because we also need to have concern for the parents’ mental well-being.

“Dealing with self-harm is unlikely to be new to us but is very likely to be new for the parent”

Safeguarding policy

Contacting parents is often a knee-jerk reaction to discovering a student is self-harming. However, we must remember that our safeguarding duty is to the student and, before we ring a parent, we must consider whether we are compounding the situation by doing so. 

Parents can be a contributory factor in the student’s self-harm. If automatic contact is made, the student may deny it and avoid the necessary support which would be detrimental to their long-term future. I’m not saying don’t contact the parents; I’m saying that it should be discussed first, with the student.

Do they want you to contact the parents? If not, why not?

Then move forward from there.

Parental well-being

We should take time to consider how we contact parents, what we say, and make sure that we’ve got our facts right. When I speak about self-harm at education conferences, there is often a story about schools contacting parents, panicking them and it not even being a case of self-harm.

One teacher told me that their daughter’s school had contacted her to say that her daughter was self-harming and threatening suicide. Of course she immediately drove over there to find out that firstly, the school had let her daughter walk home (a big safeguarding no) and secondly, it wasn’t even her daughter – it was another student. Improper investigation and a rush to action caused great unnecessary stress for all concerned. There are many other similar stories I have been told, even one school that refuses to have students who self-harm on site for the protection of their staff!

Working with parents

Some may wonder why working with the parents and consideration for them is important. We all want the best outcome for the student and that means working together with the family. It also means supporting them through this time as we may be the most experienced professionals involved. Dealing with self-harm is unlikely to be new to us but is very likely to be new for the parent. We should help the parent process the information and know best how to support their child.

First contact

We should start by looking at how we contact the parent. Please ensure that you have spoken with the student before contacting their parent, even if it’s to say that we have to ring parents according to the law. You can add that you wanted the student to be aware of this and you can ask them how they feel about it. Sometimes self-harm arises from a lack of control over their own life, so we mustn’t compound this further.

The initial contact with the parent is important. It’s not as simple as ringing them up and saying, ‘Your child is self-harming and you need to come in for a meeting’.

A more suitable introduction could be:

‘We are worried that ……. is struggling with their mental well-being at the moment and one of the signs of this is that they may be hurting themselves. Are you able to come in to talk about how we can work together to help them?’

Reassure the parents that it’s more common than they think and there are usually a variety of reasons why it may be happening. Sometimes it may be a one-off, but it’s important that the right support is given to ensure it doesn’t become long term.

“A supported parent who understands means a more supported student”

First meeting

When you first meet with the parents, reassure them that their child is OK and ask how they are themselves. They may be experiencing any one of the emotions we previously discussed and need to be given the opportunity to express that. Again, reassure them that this is common and their reaction is normal. Everyone’s aim is to work together for the best outcome for the student.

Talk about the student being worried that they’ve let their parents down and being worried about their reaction. The toolkit (on page 35) provides a handout you may wish to email or give parents at this point to provide information and understand how to support. Alternatively it can be given before the meeting.

Talk about how it’s important that none of you (including the education staff) bombard the student with questions but instead talk about how you can all work together to help the student manage their emotions in a more suitable way. Telling them to stop isn’t going to fix the problem.

Setting out a plan

The purpose of the meeting will be to develop a plan of how to support the student and it should be done as a group, not just left to the parents to seek support. It should also closely involve the student; for example, what support would they like?

Possible outcomes could include:

  • contacting the local GP
  • a referral to CAMHS
  • a referral to the school counsellor
  • regular sessions with pastoral support staff
  • accessing self-harm websites
  • using self-harm apps
  • using play therapies
  • actively working to boost self-esteem.

It’s difficult to be specific as it really depends on the circumstances of each individual situation. However, remember that the aim is to work together to achieve the best possible outcome for the student and that includes supporting the parent. A supported parent who understands means a more supported student.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Sam Garner

Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students (www.garnereducation.co.uk). She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (www.rebalanceprogramme.com).

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