Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It can be used as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.
Some people have described self-harm as a way to:
express something that is hard to put into words
turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible
change emotional pain into physical pain
reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
have a sense of being in control
escape traumatic memories
have something in life that they can rely on
punish themselves for their feelings and experiences
stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated (see dissociation and dissociative disorders)
create a reason to physically care for themselves
express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life.
There may be a short-term sense of release after self-harming, but the original cause of the distress is unlikely to have gone away. It is important to try and get support or treatment as soon as possible to help the young person deal with the underlying cause in a less harmful way.
It can be hard to recognise the signs of self-harm in children and teenagers, but as a parent it is important to trust your instincts if you are worried something is wrong. There are a number of myths surrounding self-harm, including the idea that it predominantly affects girls; it is only a young person’s issue; that it is attention-seeking or copycat behaviour. Some of these misplaced beliefs about self-harm can prevent parents recognising there may be a problem.
Some signs of self-harm to look out for include:
covering up, for example by wearing long sleeves a lot of the time, especially in summer
unexplained bruises, cuts, burns or bite-marks on their body
blood stains on clothing, or finding tissues with blood in their room
becoming withdrawn and spending a lot of time alone in their room
change in sociability, such as avoiding friends and family
feeling down, low self-esteem or blaming themselves for things
outbursts of anger, or risky behaviour like drinking or taking drugs
If you think your child has any injuries or wounds that require medical attention it is important to take your child to hospital or to your GP. If you need help for a mental health crisis or emergency, you should get immediate expert advice and assessment.
Helping your child
Over the longer-term, becoming more aware of how they feel when they self-harm, what’s making them feel this way and what kinds of things help, will empower your child to feel more in control. This will hopefully reduce the sense of being overwhelmed and the feeling that they need to self-harm. You can find more tips about this below.
When the urge to self-harm does build in the moment, having a list of other things they can do straight away can also help your child to ‘ride the wave of’ their intense feelings without self-harming.
Remember that different things will work for different people, and that what helps will usually depend on the feelings your child is trying to manage. Some young people will want to do something soothing like wrapping themselves up in a comfy space, while others might want to do something very active to burn off the energy in their body.
Talk to your child about different strategies they could try, while also giving them space to find their own ways of coping and figure out what works for them.
Strategies could include
Discovering your child is self-harming will inevitably have a big emotional effect on you, but it’s important to try and remain calm and reassure them that you’re there to help and support. It can be very difficult for young people to talk about what they are experiencing and they may need professional support to help manage.
Self harm is a complex issue and as a parent it is important you get the right support so you can help your child. There are many organisations you can contact for advice, some of which are listed below:
The distrACT app gives you easy, quick and discreet access to information and advice about self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
The content has been created by doctors and experts in self-harming and suicide prevention
Is a great support service for young people They run a free online course aimed at 11-19 year olds.
Alumina is a free, online 7 week course for young people struggling with self-harm. Each course has up to 14 young people, all accessing the sessions from their own phones, tablets or laptops across the UK. The courses take place on different evenings of the week and are run by friendly, trained counsellors and volunteer youth workers. You don’t need an adult to refer you or sign you up, and no-one will see or hear you during the sessions – you’ll just join in via the chatbox. We want to help you to find your next steps towards recovery, wherever you are on your journey.
Harmless is an organisation who work to address and overcome issues related to self-harm and suicide. They have a range of resources aimed at helping people understand self harm and how to support a loved one who is self harming.
Explains self-harm, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
The Youngminds website includes advice and information for parents about self harm including: reasons for self harm, common myths, and how to support a child who is self harming.
Book Recommendations for supporting Children
Why do I hurt myself
This book provides a first-of-its-kind, story-based tool for helping young people through the story of Elisa, a sixth grader, has started purposely hurting herself.
by Susan Bowman