Self-harm in children and young adults

Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK
03 June 2019

What is self-harm and how can you help your child if they hurt themselves? Here Glenys Jackson, Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK, explores the answers to these questions.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm (also known as self-injury) is when someone hurts themselves on purpose. Your child may:

  • cut or burn their skin
  • pull their hair
  • hit them self
  • strangle or bite themselves

Your child may also eat or drink something, like medicines, drugs or other substances that will cause them harm. This is known as self-poisoning.

Why does my child want to hurt themselves?

It can be hard to comprehend why someone would want to hurt them self on purpose, but it’s important to understand why. For some people, it is a release – a way to diffuse emotions or stressful situations that they feel unequipped to deal with. For others it helps them to feel in control of a situation that they feel helpless to solve. Some people self-harm to communicate and express their struggles and inability to cope.

Is my child trying to end their life?

Not everyone who self-harms wants to end their life – only a small minority of people do. But for some, suicide happens because they hurt themselves in this way. Those who self-harm are also at a higher risk of suicide in the future.

How can I help my child?

It can be extremely hard if you suspect, or know, that your child hurts themselves. Knowing how best to help and keep them safe can be tough. But there are things you can do to help.

1. Know the signs

Self-harm is often concealed and hidden from others. Your child may actively try to hide any evidence that they hurt themselves. This often happens because they don’t know how to approach you about how they are thinking and feeling.

If your child self-harms, they may have marks on their skin. If they have cuts, burns or bruises on their skin, they may try to hide these underneath clothing. You may notice that they feel uncomfortable getting undressed, or exposing their skin in front of other people. However, this isn’t always the case – self-harm can come in many different forms.

As a parent, it’s also important to pick up on changes in your child’s behaviour that could mean they are struggling to cope. Are they upset, withdrawn or unusually irritable?

Try to be aware of situations that may be troubling them. This could include situations at home, for example arguments between parent, siblings or other family members, or problems at school.

2. Get help for self-harm

If you discover that your child hurts themselves, it’s important to get them the help and support they need. If you’re unsure who to speak to, approach your GP. They may refer your child to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in your local area. CAMHS specialise in the assessment and treatment of mental health of children and young people. Here your child may be able to access mental health specialists and treatments to help them process and work through their self-harm.

If your child is in immediate danger and you are concerned for their safety and wellbeing call 999 for emergency help immediately. This could be for example, if they’ve hurt themselves badly or poisoned themselves by drinking or eating something that they shouldn’t.

3. Communicate

If your child or teenager hurts themselves, make sure that you talk to them. It can be very distressing to find out that your child self-harms. But try not to judge or confront their actions – especially when addressing their self-harm for the first time. Be sensitive and try to acknowledge what they are feeling. Reassure your child and let them know that you understand that what they are going through is very real for them, and that you’re there to support them. Remember to keep communication open and let them know you're always there to talk them through a difficult situation.

4. Explore ways to cope

It’s really important to seek professional advice and guidance when trying to support your child. You may find that their school or college can offer support, along with the other helpful organisations and resources, listed below.

If you feel confident, try to help your child manage their distress and need to self-harm in other ways. It may help to develop a plan, for example if they are angry, suggest that they punch or scream into a pillow, rip up a magazine, or run on the spot vigorously for ten seconds. If they feel numb and hurt themselves to feel something, explore alternative ways of feeling emotion. You could suggest that your child washes their arms or hands, and encourage them to feel the sensation of the water as it flows against their skin.

If your child hurts themselves when they are feeling sad or scared, comfort them and encourage them to do things to comfort themselves. Try suggesting that they listen to some soothing music, snuggle in their duvet, or take a moment to breathe and notice as they inhale and exhale.

For some children and young adults, their need to hurt themselves stops when the situation they’re struggling with resolves. So, talk to your child and find out what’s troubling them. Is there anything you can do to resolve situations that cause them distress? Keeping a diary may also help you and your child to identify any triggers.

What works for one person may not work for another. Here we’ve outlined some things that may help your child to cope, but it’s important to reiterate that you should seek help from a trained professional.

5. Keep them safe

If your child self-harms or has self-poisoned, keep harmful products, like medicines or cleaning products, locked away. You should also buy blister packs of medicines rather than bottles – the delay with opening each tablet, may be enough time for your child to think about and reconsider their actions.

If your child hurts themselves, remember to check and care for their wounds and help them to get their wounds treated, if needed.

Helping yourself

Caring for a child who self-harms can be extremely difficult – you may feel very worried and, at times, overwhelmed. Getting the right advice and support can help you to look after your child, but it’s also important to take care of yourself. Check in with how you are feeling regularly, and reach out for support for yourself if you need it.

Other helpful websites and resources

  • YoungMinds

    Young Minds have a guide for parent of children who self-harm: Supporting your child who is self-harming. They also have a parent’s helpline that you can call for free on 0808 802 5544 (Mon–Fri 9:30–16:00)


    The NSPCC have information around self-harm, including information on how to spot the signs and what you can do to help. They also have a helpline for adults concerned about a child that you can call on 0808 800 5000. You can speak to an experienced counsellor Monday–Friday 8am–10pm or 9am–6pm at the weekends.

  • Mind

    Mind have useful information about self-harm: Understanding self-harm. The resource explores how individuals who self-harm can help themselves now and in the future. It also provides advice around what friends and family can do to help.

  • Samaritans

    You can call the Samaritans for free any time, day or night on 116 123. They are there to listen and help you work through what’s on your mind.

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Glenys Jackson
Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK

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