A father comforting his sad daughter with his arm around her

A guide for parents Self-harm

Read our guide to self-harm to learn more about what self-harm is, what the signs of self-harm are in a young person, and where to get support.

What is self-harm?

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.

Having found out my child was self-harming, I was so devastated and confused as to why. My emotions were all over the place, not knowing how to help her, where to go for professional help – it was so stressful. As a father I just wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool.
Parent

Signs a young person is self-harming

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.

Some ways that young people self-harm include:

  • cutting themselves
  • scratching skin with fingernails
  • burning skin
  • biting skin
  • hitting themselves, or banging their head or another part of their body on a wall
  • pulling hair out from their head, eyebrows or eyelashes
  • inserting objects into their body

If you are worried your child may be self-harming, here are some things to look out for:

  • unexplained cuts, burns, bite marks, bruises or bald patches
  • keeping themselves covered, for example wearing long sleeves or trousers even during hot weather, not wanting to change clothes around others or avoiding activities like swimming
  • bloody tissues in waste bins
  • seeming low or depressed, for example withdrawing from friends and family
  • blaming themselves for problems or expressing feelings of failure, uselessness or hopelessness
  • outbursts of anger or argumentativeness
A mother and daughter having a serious discussion at home in front of a radiator

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.

  • Often it’s a way for people to let out feelings that are hard to explain or control.
    Lucas, young person
  • You probably feel better at the time, but then the guilt sets in, and then it’s just the cycle. It never really makes the emotion go away.
    Young person

Helping your child in the short term

A mother and son smiling hugging in a park by a tree

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.

Helping your child over the longer term

It might help to start a conversation while walking outside or doing an activity, which can help your child to feel more relaxed and make it feel less like a ‘big chat’. It can also help both of you to be in a neutral space, for example not in their bedroom. You can find our activity ideas for starting a conversation here.

While you may understandably have lots of questions, it’s important to remember your child is going through a tough time and may find this overwhelming. Focus on finding out how they’re doing, without bombarding them for information.

Remember that your child may feel ashamed about self-harming and find it difficult to talk about. Let them come to you when they feel ready to talk, and reassure them that they can talk to you as often and for as long as they need to.

If your child is struggling to talk, they might find it easier to text you or write you a letter. This also gives you time to process what they’ve told you and think about how you’d like to respond.

When your child does open up, try to focus on listening, showing empathy and being curious about what it’s like for them, rather than trying to ‘fix’ things straightaway. Sometimes they will just want you to listen and understand how they are feeling.

Self-harm is a way of coping, and is usually a symptom of something else that’s going on. Are there things, such as a relationship or experiences at home or school, that are making them feel worried, frightened, upset or angry? Are there changes that could be made to make things better? Taking pressures away can help to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

What kinds of thoughts are they having, and how do they feel in their bodies? For example, they might start to feel more zoned-out, or like they’re full of panic. This can help them to recognise what feelings they’re trying to cope with, and what they can do instead to express and manage these.

Keeping a mood diary might help them to understand this overtime – this could be as simple as a word, phrase or emoji that they note down each day.

Even if it’s just for a little while, doing something fun can give your child a break and help them relax. This might be drawing, making something, playing sport, cooking or watching a favourite film together.

This includes getting up at a regular time, eating regular healthy meals, doing exercise, drinking water, spending quality time with loved ones and getting enough sleep (teens need a minimum of eight to ten hours per night). It might help to think about limits around screen time as part of this.

If you feel confident, you can ask them whether removing the things they are using to self-harm would be helpful, or whether this might cause them to use something that is less sanitary or more harmful. This can be a difficult question to ask and if you don’t feel confident, it’s okay to ask for professional advice.

It’s completely natural that when you find out your child is self-harming, you may want to watch over them or know what they’re doing all the time. While it’s a good idea to monitor the situation and check in with them, sensing that they’re being watched may increase their feelings of anxiety and guilt. When it feels possible and they need it, give them some space.

While there are lots of things you can do to help your child, lots of young people in this situation will need professional help to shift the situation and feel better. You can find out how to access help below.

  • Empathise with their emotional state. Life is tough right now and it shouldn’t be, but it is. Make sure your child knows there is so much they can do to make things better, and none of them involve attacking themselves or feeling bad about themselves.
    Laura, parent
  • Check in with your child on a regular basis. It can be easy to feel that everything is back to normal when your child appears to be coping, but it’s essential to monitor what's really happening for your child.
    Michelle, parent
  • Become your child’s best critical friend – compassionate, supportive, encouraging them to seek help and confidential where it matters.
    Laura, parent
  • My mum and dad came into my room and did something brilliant for me. They accepted it. They didn’t shout at me or tell me off.
    Young person

Young people tell us it's helpful when parents...

  • are open-minded and don’t make assumptions
  • remember that their child is not doing this for attention – it’s their way of letting out the pain on their terms
  • let their child know they are there to help, and aren’t going to judge them
  • listen to them and offer reassurance – things like ‘I’m proud of you’, ‘we will get through this together’ and ‘I recognise your pain and want to help’

Young people tell us it's unhelpful when parents...

  • put too much pressure on their child to stop
  • force their child to talk when they’re not ready
  • minimise their child’s feelings by saying things like ‘it’s only puberty’, ‘it’s just a phase’ or ‘you just need to grow up’

Finding professional help

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.

Getting help for your child
A woman on her mobile phone

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.

Parents Helpline and Webchat

Parents have found the following things helpful to keep in mind when seeking professional help:

  • If you’re feeling under a lot of strain yourself, or that the situation is too much to manage as a parent, it’s often a sign that more professional help is needed.
  • Try to speak to professionals early on, before things have escalated to a crisis situation.
  • Encourage your child to give themselves some time to get to know a professional and build trust, remembering that they might be starting from a very withdrawn place.
  • Ask if you can see the same professional each time, so that you and your child don’t have to keep re-explaining the situation.
  • Be open minded about different types of treatment – remembering that what works for your child might not be the same as what would work for you.
Don’t panic. Seek help. Make sure you’re eating, drinking and sleeping properly yourself.
Kathy, parent

Keeping your child safe

A mother comforts her upset daughter on a bed

It’s important to take your child to hospital or to your GP if they have any injuries or wounds that require medical attention.

It can be helpful to understand as a parent that self-harm is often a coping mechanism to help someone manage, and isn’t necessarily an expression of suicidal feelings or an attempt to take their own life. However, people who experience suicidal thoughts can be more likely to have self-harmed in the past. If you’re worried that your child may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, read our guide to find out how you can access help.

Suicidal thoughts

Looking after yourself

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.

  • Don't keep it a secret. Talk about it and try to get as much support as you can from trusted people. But ensure it isn't something that is gossiped about, as this will be uncomfortable for the child.
    Michelle, parent
  • Try to ignore the feelings of guilt about helping yourself. You need to be well, both physically and mentally, to support your child to the best of your ability. You need to take extra care during this difficult time.
    Michelle, parent

Where to get further support

Useful helplines and websites

  • The Mix

    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.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, seven days a week
  • Childline

    If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

    Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

    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.

    Opening times:
    9am - midnight, 365 days a year
  • YoungMinds Textline

    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
  • Calm Harm

    A free app providing support and strategies to help you resist or manage the urge to self-harm.

    Can be downloaded from Google Play or App Store.

  • MeeToo

    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.

    Can be downloaded from Google Play or App Store.

  • Samaritans

    Whatever you're going through, you can contact the Samaritans for support.

    Opening times:
    24/7