Understanding self harm

There still remains a stigma around self harm and it can be isolating, not only for the young person but also for their parents or carers. The reaction a young person gets when they reveal they have been self harming has a major impact on whether they can go on to get help and recover.

What is self harm?

Self harming can typically include: cutting, burning, pulling hair out, head banging, controlling eating patterns, swallowing damaging articles such as razor blades and abusing alcohol and drugs.

Signs to look out for if you think a child or young person is self harming:

  • unexplained cuts and bruises
  • wearing long sleeved clothes, especially in warm weather
  • knives or razor blades going missing
  • unexplained blood stains on clothes or towels
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • change in moods – frequently angry or depressed.

Why do young people self harm?

However negative and self-destructive it may seem to hurt or injure their body, for some children and young people it is a way of coping. Self harming may seem like the only way of dealing with and releasing unbearable feelings. This may be the one area in their life that they feel able to control.

Children and young people who self harm may have low self-esteem and poor body image. They may have had difficult experiences and relationships. Some of the feelings described by young people who self harm include fear, guilt, anger, shame, helplessness and self hatred.

Reasons for self harming include:

  • bullying
  • death of a parent or close friend
  • parents separating or divorcing
  • serious illness which can affect how they feel about themselves
  • being under pressure, for example, exams
  • abuse: emotional, sexual, physical and neglect.

Some people self harm on a regular basis as a means of coping while for others it will only be once in a while.

“I dragged a razor along my skin and when I saw the blood I felt relieved. Cutting stops the dark thoughts for a while.” (Truth Hurts: Report on the National Enquiry in Self Harm. Camelot Foundation and Mental Health Foundation 2006)

How to respond to and support children and young people who self harm?

Finding out that a child or young person is self harming can cause parents to experience a wide range of emotions: shock, helplessness, anger, disgust, panic, disbelief, guilt and isolation.

It is important not to overreact or show anger and revulsion. It's hard, but try to understand the child's reasons for self harming - and not just the behaviour itself. There are a few approaches which parents tell us have helped. Try to:

  • Stay calm and non judgemental.
  • Ask sensitively if they are self harming. 
  • Encourage them to talk, give them space and listen.
  • If they are uncomfortable talking to you, encourage them to talk to someone they feel comfortable with.
  • Acknowledge any distress they have and show concern.
  • Try not to make demands or assumptions.

Some injuries caused by self harm may need medical attention.

Don’t ask them to stop. They won’t until they are ready to, and this may be one of the few things in their life that they feel able to control.

All you might be able to do is to keep the lines of communication open with the young person and talk to them. They may reveal their reasons for self harming over time.

To talk through some of the feelings you may have and for ongoing support for you and your child, please contact our free helpline for confidential help and advice.

Contact Parentline

When you need advice on self harm, or any other issue you face as a parent or carer, Parentline is here to help.