Tips for Friends Helping Friends Who Are Self-Harming


When you and I were young, it was unlikely we ever had to support a friend who was self-harming, simply because self-harm was not talked about as openly.  Today, young people are highly educated when it comes to mental health, and with the accessibility to each other through technology, friends play a very different role than in previous generations.

Supporting a friend who is self-harming is a huge ask for any teenager.  It can create an incredible amount of stress for young people who genuinely want to see their friends thrive.  Feelings can range from shock, concern, helplessness and anxiety.  Some young people feel highly responsible for their friend’s behaviour and can become burdened with the job of helping them.  

To my young readers. This is written for you....

If you are a young person who is supporting a friend who is self-harming, I want to commend you for your courage and care.  A friend can make all the difference during a challenging time. I hope these five tips will empower you be the best friend you can be and look after yourself at the same time!

Tip 1:  Know Your Place

You aren’t their parent, so save the lectures and check-in phone calls. You aren’t their counsellor, so don’t attempt to solve their problems or come up with all the answers. You are their friend, and heaven knows they need a friend right now.  Friends love unconditionally, care, listen, have fun and protect one another.  Stay in this headspace and you are well on your way to being a great support to them.    

Tip 2:  Don’t Change a Thing

When you first find out that a friend is self-harming, one or both of you might feel awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassed or scared of how it may change your relationship.  The temptation is to either throw yourself into crisis mode and spend every waking moment together or avoid each other altogether.  I suggest that you do neither.  Make a conscious effect to keep your friendship routine normal.  Don’t change a thing!  Talk about normal things and enjoy normal things.

Tip 3:  Make a Deal

A friend would never humiliate a friend who was self-harming by sharing that information with other people.  However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t need to talk to an adult from time to time.  I suggest you make a deal with your friend.  Ask your friend to help you choose an adult you could contact if you were ever worried about them.  If your friend ever mentions suicide you need to be strong enough to ask for an adult’s help. That can take courage.  

Tip 4:  Educate Yourself

The opposite of self-harm is self-care.  People who self-harm have often forgotten how to care for themselves.  Here are some ideas you might like to think about sharing with your friend:

·      Social – Talk to a friend, be with people, help someone else, go to a public place

·      Physical – Exercise, go to the gym, rip up paper, go swimming

·      Constructive – Do homework, clean room

·      Comfort – Cuddle a toy, take a shower, wear your PJs, drink hot chocolate

·      Fun – Watch a DVD, surf the internet, see a movie, listen to music, read, play with a pet

·      Creative – Write a letter, do some art, play music, make a compilation

All of these strategies are great replacements for self-harm and things you can suggest to a friend who is feeling like they want to self-harm.

Tip 5.  Don’t Forget About Yourself   

One of the most important things that you can do when caring for others is to care for yourself.  That really hard I know!  Don’t feel guilty for turning your phone off when you have another priority.  Don’t ever neglect your own goals or your schoolwork.  Stay true to who you are and allow those who love you to talk to you, if they feel you are extending yourself beyond what you can handle.

PS. Thank you for sharing. You never know the difference you could make to someone else’s life.

You can find more on this topic in my book 'Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help” available from michellemitchell.org


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Michelle Mitchell