Find out how to spot the signs and what you can do to help

Self-harm can take lots of physical forms, including cutting, burning, bruising, scratching, hair-pulling, poisoning and overdosing.

There are many reasons why children and young people try to hurt themselves. And once they start, it can become a compulsion. That's why it's so important to spot it as soon as possible and do everything you can to help.

Self-harm isn’t usually a suicide attempt or a cry for attention. Instead, it’s often a way for young people to release overwhelming emotions. It’s a way of coping. So whatever the reason, it should be taken seriously. 

Why children harm themselves

The exact reasons why children and young people decide to hurt themselves aren't always easy to work out. In fact, they might not even know exactly why they do it.

There are links between depression and self-harm. Quite often a child or young person who is self-harming is being bullied, under too much pressure to do well at school, being emotionally abused, grieving or having relationship problems with family or friends.

The feelings that these issues bring up can include:

  • low self-esteem and low confidence 
  • loneliness
  • sadness
  • anger
  • numbness
  • lack of control over their lives

Often, the physical pain of self-harm might feel easier to deal with than the emotional pain that's behind it. It can also make a young person feel they're in control of at least one part of their lives.

Sometimes it can also be a way for them to punish themselves for something they've done or have been accused of doing.

How to spot the warning signs

Young people will go to great lengths to cover self-harm scars and injuries. If you do spot them they might be explained away as accidents.

The signs to look for divide into the physical and emotional.

Physical signs of self-harm

These are commonly on the head, wrists, arms, thighs and chest and include:

  • cuts
  • bruises
  • burns
  • bald patches from pulling out hair

Young people who self-harm are also very likely to keep themselves covered up in long-sleeved clothes even when it's really hot.

Emotional signs of self-harm

The emotional signs are harder to spot and don't necessarily mean that a young person is self-harming. But if you see any of these as well as any of the physical signs then there may be cause for concern.

  • depression, tearfulness and low motivation
  • becoming withdrawn and isolated, for example wanting to be alone in their bedroom for long periods  
  • unusual eating habits; sudden weight loss or gain
  • low self-esteem and self-blame
  • drinking or taking drugs

What you can do about self-harm

Whatever your relationship to a child, discovering they’re  self-harming will inevitably have a big emotional effect on you. But however it makes you feel, it's very important that you stay calm and let them know that you're there to help and support them.

Try not to jump to immediate conclusions or to find instant solutions. And never give the impression that their self-harming has created a big problem for you.

It’s also important to remember that the severity of the injuries doesn’t reflect the young person’s suffering. Something has caused them to self-harm – so it’s always helpful to be sensitive. Saying things such as “the injuries aren’t that bad” or “what have you done to yourself?” could make things worse.

Try not to take it personally or blame yourself either. Just concentrate on showing you understand and want to help.

If your child wants to talk about their self-harm and why they're doing it, sit down and listen. If they're finding it hard to speak to you face-to-face then why not suggest they put their thoughts into an email or letter instead?

If there's another adult who's close to them they might want to talk to them instead. Alternatively, ChildLine is only a call away on 0800 1111.

For more advice, take a look at our page on talking about difficult topics. 

Try to get to the bottom of what makes your child start to self-harm and think about how triggers can be avoided. If you think these might be linked to time they spend on the internet, take a look at our online safety advice for parents.

Addressing the causes is going to be much more effective than removing the methods of self-harm like scissors or razors because anyone who really wants to hurt themselves is always going to find a way.

Tell the child that you understand that self-harm helps them to cope but that this is only a temporary relief. Explain that you want to help them with the problems that make them want to hurt themselves so that they can feel happier in the long run. And see if you can help them find other ways to cope. 

Think of things they can do well and be praised for. It could be arranging a surprise party for a friend or even learning to play the guitar – it doesn't matter, as long as they enjoy doing it.

ChildLine has lots of great tips for children on how to build self-esteem and confidence

Your instinct might be to constantly keep your eye on your child, and that's understandable. But by giving them their own space you'll help build up their confidence and trust. Try to find a balance between monitoring what they're doing and respecting their privacy.

It is important to make sure that if they’re harming themselves that they are cleaning and caring for any injuries effectively.

Sometimes it’s possible to have an agreement with the child where they come and tell you when they have self-harmed. You should agree not to react negatively but to both talk about it without any expectations on either side.

If they have any current wounds that require medical attention then do not delay going to the hospital.

If you feel you need to talk to someone about your child's self-harming you should only tell people who really need to know – and you should always speak with your child first.

Instead of telling them to stop self-harming, it’s often more constructive to suggest alternative coping techniques.

There are a few things you can suggest. They might not seem like they will work, but lots of children have told us that techniques like these have helped them:

    • 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
    • listen to music
    • talk to friends or family
    • take a bath or shower
    • exercise
    • watch your favorite funny film

ChildLine has lots more self-harm coping techniques to help children manage the emotions that make them feel they want to self-harm.

The self-harm cycle

Self-harm is often used as a coping mechanism. The physical pain of self-harm might feel easier to deal with than the emotional pain that's behind it.

Sometimes it can be a way for someone to punish themselves for something they've done. It can also make them feel they're in control of something in their life. 

When a person self-harms, chemicals are released into the brain which can become addictive very quickly.

The person may feel an instant relief of pressure and ‘bad feelings’. This relief is short lived and is often replaced by feelings of guilt and immediate pressure. And this is how the cycle continues.

Getting help

Having the right support behind you is vital and there are plenty of people who can help.

  • Your child's school
  • Self-harm is more and more common so your child's school will almost certainly have experience of helping pupils and their families. They will probably also have a school counsellor or another member of staff that your child trusts and can go to during the day if they feel like they're in danger of hurting themselves.

    Your first step should be to speak to the person in charge of child protection for the school. Then take it from there.
  • Your child's GP
  • The family doctor can help in a few ways. They can listen – if your child's willing to talk to them – as well as treating injuries and giving medical advice. They could also refer your child for specialist help if they need it.
  • NSPCC helpline
  • You can call our experienced counsellors whenever you need to on 0808 800 5000. They're used to dealing with the effects of self-harm and your call can be made anonymously.
  • Childline
  • Childline has trained counsellors who can help your child to talk about the emotions they may be feeling and which may be their triggers to self-harm. It's a 24/7 service that can be reached on 0800 1111.


The effects of self-harm on others


When a child is self-harming it's bound to have a big effect on you and your whole family too.

Your other children are also certain to pick up on the fact that something's wrong so make sure that you give them all the support they need.

Discovering your child is self-harming can feel quite overwhelming.

So make sure that you also get all the support you need from friends and family and maybe professional counsellors.