Self harm

Understanding self-harm

Estimated read: 10 minutes 

Self-harm can cover a range of things that people do to themselves in a deliberate and harmful way. Although cutting is the most common form of self- harm, other methods include head banging, hair pulling, burning and scalding, biting, scratching, stabbing, breaking bones, swallowing objects, self-poisoning and overdosing.

Key points:

  • The urge to self-harm can be very hard to resist and can become addictive. To recover and move forward, it is necessary to gain an understanding of the behaviour
  • Reassure you child. Tell them you love them unconditionally, you're there to support them and you will get through this
  • If you have spoken to your teen and they are still self-harming, then it is important to understand that it is not easy for them to just stop
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Understanding self-harm

By injuring themselves, children and young people are asserting a form of self-control on their life which they feel is otherwise chaotic and meaningless. Self-harm is a way of coping and of channelling frustration and other strong emotions. In most cases, it is not a suicide attempt, but rather a way to ease pressure and tension.

Apart from the physical symptoms of self-harm, there are other clues to watch out for if you are concerned about your child. Your child may seem very down and talk about being a failure or feeling unhappy. They may take to wearing many layers of clothes or trying to hide or downplay injuries. Eating disorders and disrupted sleep patterns are both seen to be linked to self-harming.  

The urge to self-harm can be very hard to resist and can become addictive. To recover and move forward, it is necessary to gain an understanding of the behaviour and develop coping strategies to help deal with the situations and emotions that lead to self-harm.

Discovering your child is self-harming is shocking for a parent. Parents may feel an array of emotions and not know what steps to take to help their teenager. Hard as it might be, parents need to put their own feelings to one side and concentrate on the reasons behind their child’s self-harm rather than the self-harm itself.

Why self-harm?

Self-harm is not a form of attention-seeking. People who self -harm tend to do so in private and try their utmost to conceal their injuries. Neither do they self-harm to look cool or fit in with their peer group. Self-harm is a repeated reaction to emotional pain and distress and this continuous behaviour is an indication of an underlying problem. With the right help and support you can help your child to come through this, and your relationship with them may even improve as a result. Parents worried about self-harm might be struggling to understand or wonder why their child has been self-harming.  

“Have you ever felt so angry, so frustrated, that you want to slam your hand on a desk or kick something across the room?” asks Caroline Roe of Harmless, a group that focuses on recovery. “That’s what self-harming is like - a surge of frustration that snaps into an action”.

When people understand this, they can relate easier to self-harm. This is not a mental illness but a means of coping with difficult emotions and feelings.

“Self-harm is always a coping strategy,” says Caroline. “A person who is self-harming is trying to influence what is going on inside. If they don’t have a language for what’s going on, they don’t know how to tolerate what they are feeling. Part of the recovery is learning to express themselves, ask for help and communicate what they are feeling. By doing that they gradually reduce the need to self-harm.”

Keeping your teen safe

While most scratches and bruises can be dealt with in a first-aid type manner any serious injuries or anything to do with heat or medicines should get prompt medical attention and a discussion with the young person about the physical nature of the self-injury. Let them know that you are there for them and want to keep them safe. Put some clear boundaries in place, including your teen being open and seeking help from you.  

What should I do if my teen is injured?

Stay calm and don’t over-react. Jane, a parent who has cared for a child who self-harmed, says: “Your child isn’t trying to kill themselves, but they’re scared, so don’t add to it.” Sit them down and treat the wound, or seek medical attention, if necessary. You don’t even have to comment on the fact that it’s happened. Don’t try to extract information or put pressure on them to talk to you. When they are ready, they will come to you and talk.

Reassure you child. Tell them you love them unconditionally, you're there to support them and you will get through this. You can say 'I don’t know what to do or say but I'm worried about you - we need to seek help.'

Supporting your teen

It is normal to have real fears for your child. But the key is to open up communication and build trust so your child can talk to you about these underlying issues. If you think your teen is self-harming, you may be wondering how to bring up this issue.

It may help to work on improving your relationship. Take time out once a week to sit down together and generally chat about what’s good and bad in their life. Ask them about their day, their friendships, and other general things. If your child gives one-worded answers, try a different environment. Go out somewhere together for a chat. You don’t have to raise self-injury in the first conversation, but you could raise it later. The child might say something to which you can gently ask ‘Is that why you’ve been hurting yourself?’

If you have spoken to your teen and they are still self-harming, then it is important to understand that it is not easy for them to just stop. Self-injury isn’t something you can stop because of will power or because you have decided. Nor is it a cry for help or attention-seeking. Your child is having trouble dealing with emotions and, for now, this is the only way they can deal with them.

Trying to physically restrain your child or prevent them from harming is the worst thing you can do. If a young person feels they are being prevented from doing what they need to do, it can drive the behaviour underground, so they are less likely to seek help - or they are likely to feel more out of control. And when they feel out of control, they are more likely to harm themselves in a worse way. This is not condoning the fact they are self-harming, but it is accepting that this is where they are now.

Parents may have to accept that their child might not want to talk to them about it and may never give an explanation. All you can do is assure them your love is unconditional. If they can’t talk to you, help them find someone they can talk to. However, if your child does confide, don't dismiss or trivialise their worries. 

It’s important that however bad parents think things are, they are hopeful of change. Believe and keep believing in your child’s capacity to overcome it. Then they’ll feel that too. That sounds clichéd but it makes a big difference. The biggest thing that people who self-harm say they want to hear is ‘it’ll be ok.

Further resources 

If you need support, you can speak to Harmless, an organisation for people who self harm, their friends, families and professionals. National Self Harm Network supports individuals who self harm to reduce emotional distress and to improve their quality of life and support and provide information for family and carers of individuals who self harm.

It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at askus@familylives.org.uk or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker. 

This page was updated on September 2021

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