I do a lot of work with school staff and parents and come across some very sad and severe cases of self-harm, eating disorders, bullying etc. Recently though, I’ve increasingly come across something new; children who are confiding in friends, teachers or parents about e.g. self-harm or bullying that isn’t actually happening.
Fabricated self-harm, invented bereavements and self-inflicted bullying
In one instance I was told about a girl who had invented both a dead sibling and a dead mother which the school took at face value, offering counselling for several months before the truth became apparent.
Relatively frequently, I am told about young people who are circulating pictures of their self-harm via social media or text message, but that when a concerned friend raises the issue with a trusted adult, the self-harm turns out to be googled images.
And then there are those young people who appear to become their own online bullies. A headline case at the moment is the case of Hannah Smith who hanged herself after being tormented by online bullies, but it appears that she may have written the taunts herself.
Why would someone invent those kinds of issues?
Every case is different and there are a wide range of reasons that young people would fabricate e.g. self-harm, bereavement or a bully but the most obvious reasons would be as a cry for help, or as an alternative form of self-harm (in the case of self-bullying).
Take the girl who invented the dead sibling and mother – this occurred when she had moved to a new town and new school in the middle of year 8. Like any child who moves mid-year and who is transplanted away from their friendship group, she was likely to go through a difficult period of transition. She may not have known who or how to ask for the support that she needed whilst making new friends and establishing a new support network. But by inventing a story that gained people’s sympathy she probably received a response that she felt very comforted by and which helped her during the period of transition.
Young people sharing images of other people’s self-harm and passing them off as their own is something that I hear of relatively frequently in schools where there are several students who are known to have self-harmed and who’ve received good support from the school and/or peers. Self-harming is suddenly seen, by some, as a good way to receive support and attention. Sharing images of other people’s self-harm images may be perceived to achieve the same outcome but without the actual harm taking place.
And as for hurling online abuse at yourself, as my have happened in the case of Hannah Smith, that could be simply an alternative form of self-harm. It’s likely that young people who carry out this type of behaviour believe every word they write and their low self-esteem means that they probably believe that the rest of the world feels this way about them too. Pre-internet, these young people might have written hate-fuelled journals about themselves, but now it’s more likely to happen online. Again, if this behaviour can be seen by others then support may be offered and the young person may seek some comfort in that. It’s hard to open up and ask for support when your tormentor is yourself, but perhaps a little easier to ask for help when you’re being bullied.
Do we need to help if there’s no actual problem?
I’m often asked about whether we should continue to support these young people once it becomes apparent that the problem they’re seeking help for is fabricated. And my answer is an unequivocal YES. In order for a young person to go to the lengths of inventing a scenario for which they might receive some support, there must be some underlying issues or difficulties for which they genuinely do need support. They may be unable or unwilling to communicate them which might be why they’ve chosen to express their worries in a different way. It’s possible that they may have developed a mental health issue or be being abused or any one of a huge number of other issues which can be hard to understand or talk about.
How can we best help?
Try not to be angry with the young person for lying – this will make them feel ashamed and embarrassed and far less likely to open up to you or someone else about what the underlying problem is. Instead give them your time and undivided attention and listen. Let them know that you’re happy to support them and do not obsess over why they felt the need to invent stories. Instead, focus on building a trusting relationship so that you can help them work through any underlying issues.
Please share your experiences and advice
If this is a situation you’ve encountered, please take a moment to leave a comment sharing your experiences and advice. We can all learn a huge amount from what has worked well, or less well, for friends and colleagues in the past.
If you would like extra help on this topic, Pooky can run a workshop for students, parents or teachers at your school or organisation. Pooky regularly runs workshops on a wide range of mental health and emotional well-being issues. There is more information here or you can fill out an enquiry form or email Pooky – firstname.lastname@example.org.