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Updated : August 1, 2022 5.5 mins read

Self harm | Support for families and carers

Updated : August 1, 2022 5.5 mins read

Article Self-harm

Self harm is a coping strategy, it is a way for your child to manage or try to understand distressing feelings or experiences.

Finding out that your child self harms can be upsetting for families and carers, but there are ways that you can help your child to understand what is causing the self harm and how they can stop.

Self harm is a way of communicating distress, often used when a person can’t verbalise or express themselves in other ways. There is a lot of stigma around self harm, which is why many young people keep it secret from their parents.

Signs your child might be self harming

If you’re worried that your child might be self harming, it’s important to encourage them to get the help they need to stop.

Sometimes you might notice changes in your child’s behaviour which have started suddenly, or they may build gradually over time.

Signs your child might be self harming:

  • Withdrawing from friends or activities they usually enjoy
  • Changes in mood; low mood, low self esteem or self worth, lack of interest/ motivation, mood swings, appearing angry or frustrated
  • Changes in usual patterns or routines
  • Appearing overwhelmed or unable to cope
  • Starting or increase in risk taking behaviour
  • Behaviour or academic issues at school
  • Having a mental health condition
  • Unexplained marks or bruises
  • Things around the home going missing; sharps, medication, first aid equipment, alcohol
  • Running away from home
  • Self defeating attitude

Types of self harm you may notice:

  • Skin picking
  • Bruises, cuts, burns
  • Hair pulling (also includes eyelashes and eyebrows)
  • Eating disorders; restrictive food intake or excessive control over burning calories

How to talk to your child about self harm

It can be difficult to know how to talk to your child about self harm. As a parent you want to protect your child and make them stop hurting themselves. As a child who is self harming they need you to be a source of comfort, reassurance and understand that they’re going through something they might not be able to put into words.

Parents who think their child is self harming can become concerned that their child wants to take their own life and that self harm is a suicide attempt. Although self harm and suicide are linked, many people who self harm do it as a way to manage their thought and feelings, not to end them entirely.

If you’re worried that your child might be thinking about suicide, you can find more information on how to talk to your child having suicidal thoughts. [link to page]

Talking about self harm:

  • Set aside a good amount of time to talk to your child . Free from distraction and interruptions
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Avoid promising to not tell anyone.
  • Don’t give ultimatums “If you don’t stop you can’t….”
  • Don’t try to bribe them into stopping “if you stop it you can have…”
  • Ultimatums and bribes tell your child you’ve missed the point of why they are self harming. Many children don’t start self harming because they want to, and if they could stop they often would.
  • Try not to panic. If your child thinks they have upset you, they might become more secretive with their feelings and self harm
  • Don’t judge them. Even if you don’t understand what your child is going through, the feelings and struggles they are having are very real for them. Feeling judged or that you don’t believe them will only push them away.
  • Be prepared. If your child says they want to get some help, have some options ready for them to explore and decide how they want to get support.
  • Be realistic. It is unlikely that after this conversation your child will stop self harming. Sometimes self harm can also get worse before it gets better after telling someone about it. Try to encourage them to be as open as they can about their self harm so you can help them keep safe.

Getting help for your child

There are some different ways that you can help your young person if they are self harming

Get Help now

If you are concerned about your mental health, or if you have found yourself feeling concerned about someone else, you can:

Call 111 – NHS 24

Call 116 123 – The Samaritans

Call 0800 83 85 87 – Breathing Space

Text: ‘YM’ to 85258 – Young Minds crisis chat

If you think you are in danger of hurting yourself or other people, you should call 999 or present to your local A&E department.