Self-harm is when someone deliberately hurts themselves. It can include cutting, burning, hitting or bruising, poisoning, scratching, hair-pulling or overdosing.
Children and young people who self-harm aren’t usually trying to commit suicide or looking for attention (although self-harming can result in accidental death). Often, self-harm is a way for the person to deal with overwhelming or distressing feelings and emotions. It’s a way of coping.
Children and young people who show signs of self-harm need support, love and understanding to help them stop.
Why do children harm themselves?
There can be lots of different reasons why a child or young person may self-harm. The reasons may not be obvious or easy to work out. A child or young person might not know themselves why they do it.
There are links between depression and self-harming. It may be because of bullying or feeling too much pressure at school. A child who self-harms may also be emotionally abused, grieving or have relationship problems.
Children who self-harm often have low self-esteem. They may experience feelings of loneliness, sadness, anger or numbness. They might feel that they have little control over their life and the act of self-harming restores at least some of that control.
Looking for warning signs
A child or young person may go to great lengths to hide physical signs of self-harm. If you suspect that a child is self-harming, look out for these signs:
- unexplained cuts, burns or bruises, or bald patches from pulling out hair
- keeping themselves covered – wearing long sleeves even when hot and avoiding changing in front of others
- being withdrawn or isolated from family and friends
- low mood or depression
- lack of self-esteem and blaming themselves for everything
- unusual eating habits – sudden weight loss or gain
- drinking or taking drugs.
How to help someone who is self-harming
Try to talk to them, but don’t focus on the self-harming straight away. Perhaps go for a walk or a drive and ask if anything is worrying them and how they are feeling. If they don’t want to talk about things you could suggest that they write you a note, a text or an email about how they feel. Ask them if they would rather talk to someone else – another family member, friend or a professional such as a GP or counsellor. Try to stay calm and reassure them that you want to help, that you love them and won’t judge whatever they say.
The following resources may be helpful to you and/or the person who is self-harming:
- Coping with self-harm is a guide for parents and carers about how to cope when a young person is self-harming. It includes information on the nature and causes of self-harm, how to support a young person when facing this problem and what help is available.
- The NSPCC offer advice and information about self-harming, including how to spot the warning signs, what to do to help somebody and where to go for help.
- Young Minds is the UK’s leading charity fighting for children and young people’s mental health. They offer support and help for children and young people who self-harm. They also have a parent helpline 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday 9.30am – 4pm, free for mobiles and landlines)
- Childline offer self-harm support for young people including self-harm coping techniques and getting help. Young people aged under 19 can confidentially call 0800 1111 (available 24 hours a day) or email or chat online with a trained counsellor through the website.
- For local support it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s school, which is likely to have a counsellor or trained member of staff that your child can go to during the day if they feel like they are in danger of hurting themselves.
- Talk to your family doctor, who can also speak to your child (if they wish) as well as treat any injuries if necessary. GPs can also refer to local child and adolescent mental health services.