Mother and daughter having a serious talk on the sofa

For workers in the community and youth workers Supporting a young person struggling with self-harm

Get information and advice on supporting a young person who is struggling with self-harm.

Topic:
Understanding feelings and behaviours
For:
Community support, Youth workers

This resource covers:

Learning about what self-harm is, how it may present itself in young people, and tips and advice on supporting a young person who is struggling with self-harm.

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What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves on purpose – generally as a way of managing 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. Others may feel numb and hurt themselves in order to feel something.

Amutha, one of our Trainer Consultants, talks through what self-harm is in this video.

Trigger warning: This video contains mention of self-harm, please take care when watching.

Play Video: Supporting a young person struggling with self-harm Supporting a young person struggling with self-harm

Some ways that young people may self-harm include:

  • cutting themselves
  • scratching their skin
  • burning skin
  • biting skin
  • hitting themselves, or banging their head or another part of their body against something
  • pulling hair out from their head, eyebrows or eyelashes
  • inserting objects into their body
  • overdosing/self-poisoning
  • fighting
  • risky sexual relationships
  • self-neglect
  • I was so alone and lost and desperate. I thought no one cared until my youth worker encouraged me to open up. I remember that day so vividly – it was the first day of the rest of my life.
    A young person
  • I’m not looking for attention, it’s just the only thing that helps me control the way I feel.
    A young person

How to recognise if a young person you know is self-harming

Close up of a boy sitting in a park. His expression seems worried as if deep in thought.

There are many signs you can look out for which indicate a young person is in distress and may be harming themselves, or at risk of self-harm. The most obvious being physical injuries which:

  • you observe on more than one occasion
  • appear too neat or ordered to be accidental
  • do not appear consistent with how the young person says they were sustained

Beyond physical injuries, some other warning signs might include:

  • secrecy or disappearing at times of high emotion
  • long or baggy clothing covering arms or legs even in warm weather
  • increasing isolation or unwillingness to engage
  • avoiding changing clothes in front of others
  • absence or lateness
  • general low mood or irritability
  • negative self-talk

Starting a conversation about self-harm

You might find yourself in the position of wanting to support a young person who is self-harming. This can be difficult if you are not sure about what to say or do.

Take a look at our video which was co-produced with young people, parents and professionals to reassure those affected by self-harm that things can and do improve.

The first conversation about self-harm

close up of a boy wearing grey hoodie listening to an advice of his teacher in front of him

We know that these conversations are not always easy; but the sooner a young person can be encouraged to talk about how they’re feeling and disclose their self-harm, the sooner it will be possible to provide the right support.

Providing a safe space for a young person to open up is important. If you have a concern about a young person you work with, you should speak to your organisation’s safeguarding lead and, working with them, make a plan for how you can encourage the young person to open up.

The most supportive first conversation is one where:

  • the young person is the sole focus of your attention
  • you spend most of your time listening, not talking
  • the young person tells their story, you never guess or assume
  • there is a feeling of acceptance and support, not judgement
  • self-harm is not dismissed as attention-seeking
  • unrealistic promises are not made about confidentiality
  • this is recognised as the first step of a difficult journey
  • clear next steps are identified and followed up promptly
  • you recognise how hard this conversation must be for the young person
  • you respond calmly – even if you don’t feel calm
It was the hardest conversation of my life, but every word I spoke made the load feel a little lighter and for the first time in a long time, I felt hope.
A young person

When a young person isn't ready to talk about self-harm

When a young person is reluctant to disclose or discuss their self-harm, three important questions to consider are shown below. If a young person still isn’t ready to open up, provide them with details of anonymous sources of support – such as those listed at the bottom of this page - and regularly check in with how they are.

  • Who is the best person to have this conversation?

    You can use your knowledge of the young person, or ask them who they feel comfortable talking to.

  • How can you help the conversation flow?

    An informal environment or talking while carrying out another activity such as walking or drawing can really help.

  • Would another medium work better?

    Some young people feel happier talking via text or email – be creative and use your knowledge of the young person.

  • I tried several times to talk to him to no avail; it was only when I texted him that the conversation finally started.
    An adult supporting a young person
  • At first, we thought he was just accident-prone, it was easy to miss, and he always had an explanation as to how he’d got hurt.
    An adult supporting a young person

What to do next

If you have any concerns about a young person's immediate safety, this is an absolute priority and should be treated as an urgent safeguarding issue in line with your organisation’s policies. If you think a young person is at immediate risk, they should not be left alone.

All discussions should be recorded and shared with your safeguarding officer who will keep these details on file and can provide support and direction on appropriate next steps.

Next steps to support might include:

  • Informing adults who need to know in order to keep the young person safe. This will usually include parents or carers. Invite the young person to consider how they might want to be involved in these conversations.
  • Support the young person to talk to their GP to seek further help and guidance.
  • Supporting the young person through the next steps of their journey. They may be on long wait-lists or passed between professionals. During this time, continue to ask them how they are and offer the support you are able to provide.

Wound care

It is important that all wounds are appropriately dressed and cared for as infection is common. Provide the young person with information about wound care or how they can get access to a trained first-aider or medical professional who can assess and dress any wounds.

Tips from adults supporting a young person struggling with self-harm

  • Make sure you know how to look after yourself after a young person discloses self-harm. You need to process this yourself so you can continue to be there for your young person.
  • When talking about self-harm, adults can often first focus on the injury, or methodology for harm, but - providing it’s not life-threatening or needs immediate care - focus first on what’s weighing on a young person so heavily that has meant they wanted to hurt themselves.
  • You don’t need to have the answer straight away. When you go straight into problem-solving mode the young person can end up feeling like they’re the problem.
  • The things that seem small to you are really big to the young person. Take time to listen.
Two girls walking in the park smiling
Supporting vulnerable young people can be emotionally demanding and affect us in ways we don’t anticipate. It is important to create time and opportunities for activities which build our resilience, whether this is a drink with friends or a walk on the beach. We need to look after ourselves in order to support the young people we work with
An adult supporting a young person

Helplines where young people can get support

You can share these helplines with the young person you are supporting if they are struggling to open up.

  • 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.

  • Tellmi

    Formerly known as 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. N.B. This is a listening service and does not offer advice or intervention.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • 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:
    24/7
  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday

Helpful resources and stories

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

Please be aware that this form isn’t a mental health support service. If you or a young person you work with is in crisis right now and wants to talk to someone urgently, find out who to contact on our urgent help page.

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Please do not include personal details. This is not a mental health support service and you will not receive a reply.

Please note:

This form is not a mental health support service. We cannot reply to this. If you or a young person you know is at immediate risk of harm, call 999 and ask for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E. If you are worried about the mental health of a young person you work with, you can signpost them to our website or suggest they contact one of these helplines: Childline (for under 19s) on 0800 11 11; or Samaritans on 116 123.

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