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Self-harm in teenagers and children

Why young people self-harm, the signs to look for and what parents can do to help

Self-harm can involve cutting, burning, bruising, poisoning, scratching, hair-pulling or overdosing.

Children and young people who self-harm are not usually seeking attention or trying to commit suicide, but it can be a way for them to deal with overwhelming or distressing feelings.

This behaviour can be addictive and children and young people need support, love and understanding to help them stop.

Self-harm is the fourth most common reason that young people contact ChildLine:

  • There was a 41 per cent increase in ChildLine counselling sessions about self-harm in 2012/13.

Find out why children and young people self-harm, the signs to look for and what you can do to help.

Why children and young people self-harm

There are many reasons why young people self-harm, and your child may not even understand why they do it.

Children and young people usually self-harm as a way of dealing with overwhelming emotions. These could be due to:

Self-harm may also be a way of dealing with feeling:

  • lonely
  • sad
  • angry
  • numb or empty
  • out of control.

Releasing tension and anger

Young people may see self-harm as a way of releasing tension or anger. The physical pain may be easier to deal with than the underlying emotions.

Feeling in control

It can also be a way of gaining control, especially when young people feel other parts of their life are out of control - for example due to family problems, relationship issues or school pressures.

Punishing themselves

Young people may also use self-harm to punish themselves for something they've done, think they've done, are accused of or have suffered.

Copying things they've seen in the media or online

Children may be influenced by things that they hear and see in the media and online, such as celebrities who self-harm or websites encouraging harmful behaviours.

Video: coping with self-harm

This ChildLine video shows how finding positive activities can help young people cope with their feelings.

Signs of self-harm

Self-harm is usually carried out in secret. The signs may not be obvious, or may be explained as the result of 'accidents'.

Signs that a child is self-harming 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 including,
    • any unusual weight loss or weight gain
  • signs of low self-esteem, such as
    • blaming themselves for any problems, or
    • thinking they're not good enough for something
  • pulling out their hair, or unexplained patches in their scalp
  • alcohol or drug misuse.

What to do if your child has been self-harming

If you discover your child is self-harming you may feel shocked, distressed, confused or angry.

However you feel, try to stay calm and let them know you are there to help and listen to them.

Listen if they want to talk, but don't force or pressure them

If your child wants to talk to you, listen and ask them what support they want.

Try to avoid:

  • jumping to conclusions or solutions
  • pressurising them by setting unrealistic targets
  • making them feel guilty that they have caused a 'problem'.

But if they don't want to talk to you, suggest that they:

  • write you a letter or email about their thoughts and feelings
  • talk to another trusted adult
  • contact ChildLine on 0800 1111.

Don't take it personally or feel that you have failed as a parent. Children often don't talk to their parents about self-harm because they are trying to protect them.

Showing understanding may help to develop your child's confidence to discuss this with you at a later time.

Learn their triggers to self-harming

Removing objects such as scissors or razors will not stop your child from hurting themselves.

Learning what the triggers are and how to recognise them will help you continue to support your child.

If you think your child is being influenced by what they've seen online, read our online safety advice for more about how to keep them safe online.

Help them find other ways to cope with their feelings

We know through talking to children who contact ChildLine, that finding positive activities like listening to music or talking to friends and family can help children and young people channel their feelings and avoid self-harming.

Build their confidence and self esteem

Help them build confidence by suggesting activities that could help focus their energy or catch their imagination.

Don't force tasks on your child, but things like organising a surprise party for a friend, or learning a new skill can help boost their self-esteem.

Show them that you trust them

Although you will be concerned about their well-being, it's important to give your child their own space.

It may be hard because you are worried, but find a balance between monitoring them and respecting their privacy.

Think carefully about who you tell

You may need to tell other people about your child's self-harm to get support or keep an eye on them.

However, keep it to people who really need to know and let your child know before you speak to them. This will avoid embarrassing or further isolating your child.

Speak to your child's school and GP

Discuss the issue with your child's school and doctor. Again, let your child know first and assure them it's to give them the support they need.

It may be that self-harm is a common concern for the school and they can help address it with a school counsellor or trusted adult that your child can go to during the day if they are thinking of self-harming.

Your family doctor can treat injuries, provide further medical advice and refer your child for additional support if required.

Offer support to siblings and other children who
may be affected

Children are very perceptive to what is going on around them, so they may have noticed the self-harm or be aware that something is wrong. Provide guidance and reassurance that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding.

Acknowledge your own needs and get support

It can be overwhelming dealing with your child's emotions, especially as there may be setbacks along the way. Make sure you acknowledge your own needs and get support when you need it.

Contact NSPCC helpline for support

If you are worried your child is self-harming, contact the NSPCC helpline on
0808 800 5000 to speak to one of our trained counsellors.

NSPCC helpline

Worried about a child?

Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.

Report a concern

ChildLine 0800 1111

Are you a child?

Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.

Get some help

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