How to recognise the signs and what to do if your child is self-harming

Self-harm is when someone deliberately hurts themselves as a coping strategy to release a build-up of tension and manage distress, and overwhelming and often complex emotions or situations that feel out of their control and influence. Conversely, they could feel numb and self-harm is a way to feel ‘something’. Often a sign something isn’t quite right in their life. Quite often, as feelings build up again, so does the urge to hurt themselves.

Self-harm among children had doubled during the decade, according to analysis. The number of children aged nine to 12 admitted to hospital having self-harmed increased from 221 in 2013-14 to 508 in 2019-20*

For parents, discovering their child is causing themselves harm is often extremely distressing, confusing and overwhelming. There are also a lot of myths that can cloud the judgement and potentially the approach of an adult in seeking to help or finding a solution, such as dismissing self-harm as ‘attention seeking’ or a ‘phase’ young people go through.

Reasons why children may self-harm

Some situations may increase the likelihood of children self-harming:

  • Being bullied

  • Family issues

  • Grief

  • Feeling out of control

  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse

  • Low self-esteem

  • Big life changes

“The reason I self-harmed as a teenager is not really straightforward, there were a lot of things going on in my life at the time, including my parents separating. Hurting myself gave me a feeling of control and released some anxiety and stress. If I’d have had some support such as access to resources or someone to confide in, I’d have probably been able to deal with my emotions and stop hurting myself sooner” (Former self-harmer)

How to recognise the signs of self-harm in children and teenagers

Self-harm can take many forms, from cutting, scratching, burning and biting, banging themselves against a hard surface, pulling body hair out, and inserting objects into their body.

Tell-tale signs can include:

  • Wearing long sleeves most of the time

  • Blood stains on bedding, tissues or clothing

  • Being withdrawn and spending a lot of time on their own

  • Bruises or other unexplained marks

  • Low self-esteem and blaming themselves for situations

  • Avoiding social situations

  • In teens, risky behaviour such as drinking or drug taking

How you can help your child or teenager

Different things will work better with different people, as reasons for self-harming are deeply personal things. Ways in which you can help can include:

  • Talking to your child about how their feelings and try to understand what is going on for them. Keeping this communication open and regular is important

  • Staying calm and non-judgmental

  • Asking how your child feels when they self-harm

  • Keeping an eye on your child without being controlling or policing them

  • Reassurance and kind words – reaffirming you’re there for them, you’ll get through things together and you’re proud of them

  • Suggesting techniques such as:

  • Keeping a journal to express feelings

  • Talking to someone – friends, family and professionals such as our coaches at Happy Confident Kids

  • Writing difficult feelings on paper and tearing the feelings/paper up

  • Feeling safe and being in a comfy space

  • Burning off energy through exercise

  • Listening to loud music

  • Hobbies such as drawing, baking or playing games.

Introducing daily well-being activities as a standard approach to life is great practice for anyone!

Things which don’t work as well:

  • Putting your child under too much pressure to stop or talk about things if they’re not ready

  • Dismissing the behaviours as a phase.

“I felt shocked, powerless, guilty and panicked when I discovered my daughter was self-harming – It’s not something which is regularly discussed among friends or fellow parents” – Parent

Tools to help

  • Calm Harm – a free award-winning app produced for teenagers
  • Meetoo- A free app for teenagers, which enables them to speak safely and anonymously to other teenagers

If you require advice and support for your child or would like to find out more about our 1:1’s call 0333 358 0390 or say

If your child’s wounds or injuries are severe, you should at first seek medical attention.

 *data analysed for BBC Radio 4’s File on 4, 2021