Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves on purpose as a way of trying to manage distressing or overwhelming feelings and experiences. Someone who is self-harming might be dealing with lots of intense thoughts and feelings, and hurting themselves may feel like the only way to cope. Or, they might feel numb and hurt themselves in order to feel something.
If your child is self-harming, or you’re concerned they might be, it can be incredibly worrying and upsetting for you as their parent. The important thing to remember is that you and your child are not alone - lots of young people go through this and come out the other side with different ways of coping with their feelings. On this page, you can find out how to support your child and where to find professional help.
If you’re worried that your child is self-harming but they aren’t talking to you about it or showing visible injuries, it can be difficult to know what's going on.
Why do young people self-harm?
Self-harm is usually a way of trying to manage very difficult feelings. People often self-harm when life feels hard to cope with – when lots of distressing feelings have built up and it’s become overwhelming. In the moment, the sensation of self-harming and experiencing some physical pain can feel easier than feeling out of control emotionally.
If a young person is self-harming, it’s often a sign that something in their life isn’t quite right or has become too much to deal with. It can be understood as an important message about how a young person is feeling – one that needs to be noticed with care by the adults around them.
Some myths you might hear about self-harm can make it harder to talk about as a parent – including that it’s a ‘phase’ young people go through, or that it’s an attention-seeking behaviour.
While it might feel hard to understand sometimes from the outside, self-harm can be a way for a young person to:
- manage, reduce or express very strong and upsetting emotions – such as hurt, sadness, anger, fear or feeling bad about themselves
- relieve tension and pressure, or reduce feelings of panic and anxiety and temporarily feel calmer
- experience a feeling of physical pain to distract from emotional pain
- gain a sense of control over feelings or problems – for example, by feeling there’s something they can do when things feel too much
- stop feeling numb or ‘zoned-out’ – which can be a protection mechanism our bodies use when we’re experiencing overwhelming feelings
However, while it often feels like self-harm brings some relief in the moment, this is only temporary. As feelings build up again, so does the urge to self-harm. As this cycle continues over time, a young person may start to feel ashamed, confused or frightened about the fact that they’re self-harming – increasing the load they’re carrying on top of what they’re already going through. This can become a cycle that’s really hard to break, and a habit that’s hard to stop.
Over the longer-term, becoming more aware of how they feel when they self-harm, what’s making them feel this way and what kinds of things help, will empower your child to feel more in control. This will hopefully reduce the sense of being overwhelmed and the feeling that they need to self-harm. You can find more tips about this below.
When the urge to self-harm does build in the moment, having a list of other things they can do straight away can also help your child to ‘ride the wave of’ their intense feelings without self-harming.
Remember that different things will work for different people, and that what helps will usually depend on the feelings your child is trying to manage. Some young people will want to do something soothing like wrapping themselves up in a comfy space, while others might want to do something very active to burn off the energy in their body.
Talk to your child about different strategies they could try, while also giving them space to find their own ways of coping and figure out what works for them. Strategies could include:
- Making and using a self soothe box
- Writing down how they’re feeling in a journal
- Writing down difficult feelings on pieces of paper and then ripping them up
- Ripping up a magazine or newspaper
- Hitting a soft cushion, pillow or bean bag
- Listening to loud music
- Having a shower
- Doing some exercise
- Going for a walk outside, or taking the dog for a walk
- Focusing on their breathing – how it feels in their body to breathe in and out
- Wrapping up in a blanket or duvet
- Talking to someone – a friend, family member or calling a helpline
- Tidying or organising something
- Doing a hobby they enjoy that helps them feel calm, such as painting, drawing, colouring-in, watching a favourite TV programme, playing video games, cooking or baking
Your child might want to use an app like Calm Harm so they have something on their phone that suggests different techniques they can try when they feel the urge to self-harm.
There are different places where you can find help for your child. Speaking to your GP is often a good place to start, as they can discuss your concerns, speak to your child to find out how they’re doing and let you know what support options are available. Depending on your child’s situation, they can also refer them for an assessment by a mental health specialist or to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). You can speak to the GP yourself to explain the situation and ask for advice, even if your child doesn’t want to talk to them.
Young people who are self-harming may find it particularly helpful to speak to a counsellor or therapist, who can help them to make sense of how they’re feeling and work with them to find new ways of coping. Our guide to counselling services takes you through the process of finding a counsellor or therapist for your child.
You can find out more about speaking to GPs, finding a counsellor or therapist, accessing CAMHS, getting help from your child’s school and finding local services on our guide to getting help.
Trying to find the right help for your child and finding your way around different services can be really tiring at times – so keep reminding yourself that you’re doing your best and that it’s not easy.
Some young people who are self-harming will find it very difficult to speak to a professional, go to appointments or even acknowledge what’s going on. If things are feeling stuck, you can call our Parents Helpline for information, advice and support.
Finding out that your child is self-harming can be an incredibly distressing, or even traumatic, experience as a parent. It’s completely normal to struggle with feelings of anxiety, confusion, sadness, anger, frustration, guilt or shame.
Try to take time when you can to check in with yourself, and to think about ways you can take care of yourself as well as your child. Remember that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it, and to share your worries with someone you trust.
Many parents who have been in this situation find it helpful to reach out to other parents so they can talk through how they have handled difficult situations and found support. You may also be able to find a local parent support group using the Charlie Waller Trust directory.
If you need more help, speaking to your GP is a good place to start, and they may be able to refer you to a local support service. Sometimes it helps just having someone there who can listen to what you’re going through – and if you need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans anytime on 116 123.
Where to get further support
Offers support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them.
Email support available via their online contact form.
Free 1-2-1 webchat service available.
Free short-term counselling service available.
4pm - 11pm, seven days a week
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
9am - midnight, 365 days a year
Text YM to 85258
Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.
All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.
Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
Opening times: 24/7
A free app providing support and strategies to help you resist or manage the urge to self-harm.
A free app for teenagers (11+) providing resources and a fully-moderated community where you can share your problems, get support and help other people too.
Whatever you're going through, you can contact the Samaritans for support.