Why do teenagers and children self-harm?
The reasons children and teenagers can self-harm are often complicated and will be different for every child or young person. Sometimes a child or teenager may not know the reasons they self-harm.
For many young people, self-harm can feel like a way to cope with difficult feelings or to release tension. The physical pain of hurting themselves can feel like a distraction from the emotional pain they're struggling with.
Some difficult experiences or emotions can make self-harm more likely in children:
- experiencing depression, anxiety or eating problems
- having low self-esteem or feeling like they’re not good enough
- being bullied or feeling alone
- experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or neglect
- grieving or having problems with family relationships
- feeling angry, numb or like they don't have control over their lives.
Signs of self-harm in children and teenagers
It can be hard to recognise the signs of self-harm in children and teenagers, but as a parent it’s important to trust your instincts if you’re worried something’s wrong.
Signs to look out for can 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- becoming withdrawn and spending a lot of time alone in their room
- avoiding friends and family and being at home
- feeling down, low self-esteem or blaming themselves for things
- outbursts of anger, or risky behaviour like drinking or taking drugs.
6% of all Childline counselling sessions related to self-harm in 2018/9.
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Supporting a child who self-harms
- Finding out that your child’s been hurting themselves can be really hard to accept and it’s natural to feel anxious or upset. Some parents might also blame themselves or feel powerless to help. But if you can, it’s really important to try and stay calm and remember there are things you can do to support your child.
- Focus on showing them that you’re there whenever they choose to talk. Remember they may prefer to talk over text or WhatsApp rather than in person. If they do feel ready to talk, try to just listen and not ask too many questions about why they’ve been self-harming, so it doesn’t seem like you’re judging them.
- Let them know that you care about them and that you want to help them find healthier ways to cope with difficult or upsetting feelings they’re having. But that’s it’s okay for them to be honest with you about what they’re going through.
- Remember self-harm is often caused by an underlying problem, like depression or anxiety, or being bullied. It can be more helpful to focus on helping them with what’s causing their feelings rather than on the self-harm itself.
- You can help them to get support for a mental health problem, such as by talking to their GP, someone at their school or to Childline. It can also help to ask their GP about a referral to Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
- Sometimes hiding or taking away something a child is using to self-harm can lead to them finding other ways to hurt themselves. You could try asking your child what would be most helpful for them and ask them to tell you when they feel they want to hurt themselves.
- Sometimes, it might be possible to come to an agreement where your child tells you when they’ve hurt themselves. It’s important to make sure any injuries or cuts are cleaned and properly taken care of. Any serious injuries should be treated right away in a hospital.
Instead of simply asking a child to stop self-harming, it can be helpful to suggest something they could do instead to cope with difficult feelings.
Some things young people who’ve spoken to us have found helpful are:
- paint, draw or scribble in red ink
- hold an ice cube in your hand until it melts
- write down your negative feelings then rip the paper up
- wear an elastic band on your wrist and snap it every time you feel the urge to self-harm
- listen to music
- punching or screaming into a pillow
- talk to friends or family
- take a bath or shower
- watch your favourite funny film.
- Many children who self-harm suffer from low self-esteem or confidence. You can help by reminding them about the things they do well or help them to learn something new together, like playing guitar or making crafts.
- You could write a list of all the things that make you proud of your child and that make them special, and giving it to them. Try to focus on things about their personality rather than things like their academic achievements.
- Childline also has advice for children and young people on building their confidence and self-esteem.
Help us make a difference
Whether it's volunteering for us, challenging yourself with an event or campaigning, there are lots of ways you can help us keep more children safe.
Advice to support children's mental health
Depression, anxiety and mental health
Advice on how to spot the signs your child may be struggling with their mental health, and what you can do to help.
"It was hard to pretend everything was ok"
Sioned struggled with her mental health growing up as a young carer. At her lowest moments, Childline helped her to feel someone cared.