Helping children who self-harm
Advice for parents on why children self-harm, signs and risks, and what to do to help
Self-harm is when a child or young person cuts, burns, bruises or poisons themselves. It does not usually mean an attempt to commit suicide.
It's usually a sign of deep distress. There can be long-term consequences to the child’s mental and physical health if they do not receive the help, understanding and support they need.
Self-harm is usually done in secret and may be difficult to detect.
If you are worried a child is self-harming, it’s important you be aware of the signs and risks and ways to help.
Find out more about children self-harming:
- the reasons
- the signs
- the risk factors
- what parents can do
- how to listen to children
- further help and information
Self-harm can be a way for a young person to show they are feeling a lot of pain and hurt, both emotionally and physically.
There are many reasons why young people might harm themselves - although the need to self-harm usually comes from emotions they find difficult to manage.
These emotions could relate to any number of things, such as:
- demands of education or exams
- other child welfare concerns.
Young people tell us that self-harm provides a way of releasing tension or anger. They can deal with the physical pain, rather than the underlying emotions that they find hard to manage.
It is also a way of gaining control, especially when they feel other parts of their life are out of control.
Many young people use self-harm as a type of punishment. It could be for something they've done, think they've done, are accused of, or have suffered.
Signs that might indicate self-harm include:
- unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns, usually on wrists, arms, thighs and chest
- keeping themselves fully covered at all times, even in hot weather
- low mood, tearfulness or a lack of motivation or interest in anything
- changes in eating habits or being secretive about eating, and any unusual weight loss or weight gain
- signs of low self-esteem, such as blaming themselves for any problems or thinking they are not good enough for something
- signs they have been pulling out their hair
- signs of alcohol or drug misuse.
Increase in incidence among teenagers and young children
The incidence of self-harm in teenagers has risen sharply and is now the fourth most common reason that young people contact ChildLine. There are increasing reports of younger children self-harming too.
Links to low self-esteem and depression
Self-harm is linked to low self-esteem and depression. Children risk developing unsightly scars, infected cuts or other health damage.
May lead to serious damage or accidental death
While self-harm is not usually a sign of suicidal thoughts, if a young person is not helped to stop, there is a risk they could cause serious damage or accidental death.
Self-harming can be addictive. A young person may want to stop but might not be able. There is a lot of shame attached to self- harm, and this can prevent young people from asking for help.
Feelings of isolation
Sometimes, the underlying causes mean the young person feels they have no one to turn to.
As a parent, suspecting your child is self-harming can be very distressing for you, but it is important that you stay calm and work out how you can best help your child.
Get professional advice
Share your concerns. If you suspect your child is self-harming but not willing to talk, or you fear this might be a reaction to abuse, bullying or neglect, you need to seek help on their behalf.
Talk to your family doctor, or call our 24-hour, confidential adult helpline and speak to one of our counsellors who can offer support and advice for you and the young person.
Provide first aid
Paying attention to the injuries can show your child that their body is worth caring about. Don’t just focus on the injuries, as it's important to understand how difficult the young person is finding life.
Let your child know you care about them
You may not be a person they can talk to at the moment, but let them know you want to help. Praise the small things they do. If their self-esteem is low they will need all the encouragement you can give them.
Listen if they want to talk
If they do start talking, just listen. You can show you are listening by summarising what they have told you in your own words. This may help them to think more clearly when they hear their story repeated back to them. It is important not to try to problem-solve or manage their situation. Ask them what they want you to do.
Encourage them to get help
Provide the first-aid they need for cuts but insist they get medical attention for anything that looks serious. Tell them that this is not normal or healthy behaviour but there are people who can help them find better ways to cope.
Stay calm but be persistent
It is important you don’t get upset or angry. Persist in your request for them to get help. Use the ‘cracked record’ approach and reiterate that: “I can see you are really upset, but you need to talk to someone who knows more about this than me. You need to get help.”
Get support for yourself
Dealing with your child’s emotions, your own reaction, and managing other members of the family and their needs can be completely overwhelming. Talk to your family doctor, find a friend you trust or look for support groups locally or online. You cannot help your child if you become ill yourself.
You can always call our helpline any time day or night if you have no one else to call on.
For more advice on communicating with your child, download our free booklet Listening to children: improving communication with your child.
Advice and resources to help you create a safe and nurturing environment for your children.
Worried about a child?
Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.
Are you a child?
Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.