Foster carers often seek help when their child in placement self – harms. It can be a frightening and upsetting experience to see the results on a young person’s body. Carers can feel frustrated and powerless by their lack of ability to stop their young person from self-harming.
Self-harm is usually a way of coping with overwhelming negative feelings which often result from trauma or abuse. Young people tell me it is effective, in some ways too effective. It really helps them to have a physical pain that they can control, which, when inflicted is more powerful than the emotional pain. There is temporary relief from the nagging, ongoing and uncontrollable emotional pain when the physical pain is experienced.
Self-harmers tell me the relief feels so good that the urge to keep doing it gets very strong. This is what I mean by too effective – when the reward feels this good the self-harming behaviour can become almost addictive. I guess like any other addiction the amount of harm has to be increased in order to feel the same effects. It becomes very hard to give it up.
I was reminded recently however that it is not necessarily always like this. I recently encountered a young person who had begun to self-harm and her carers became very concerned. It turned out however that she had done so in order to impress her peers. It reminded me that careful assessment is important. It is easy to attribute all difficult behaviours of children in the care system to early trauma and easy to forget that they also have the same needs as many other teenagers.