As a parent or carer you can help a young person who is self-harming by following the advice given below.

Why do children and young people self-harm?

Factors that motivate people to self-harm include a desire to escape an unbearable situation or intolerable emotional pain, to reduce tension, to express hostility, to induce guilt or to increase caring from others.

A young person may self-harm because they're suffering depression, have a psychiatric disorder, have low self-esteem, have a difficult family life, are suffering from abuse or neglect, have difficulty in forming relationships or because they're isolated or being bullied. There may be many other reasons why a young person chooses to self-harm, and it's usually the symptom of an underlying problem.  

Examples of self-harming behaviour include:

  • Cutting
  • Taking an overdose of tablets
  • Swallowing hazardous materials or substances
  • Burning, either physically or chemically
  • Over/under medicating, eg misuse of insulin
  • Punching/hitting/bruising
  • Hair-pulling/skin picking/head-banging
  • Episodes of alcohol/drug abuse or over/under eating, at times may be deliberate acts of self-harm
  • Risky sexual behaviour

How to spot the signs

The young person's behaviour and emotional wellbeing may have changed. They may suffer mood swings and become withdrawn. Other signs to be aware of may include:

  • Changes in eating/sleeping habits
  • Increased isolation from friends/family
  • Low self-esteem or an increase in negative self-talk
  • Frequent injuries (ie cuts, bruises, burns) with suspicious explanations
  • Covering up their body (even in warm weather)
  • The presence of behaviours that often accompany self-injury: eating disorders, drugs/alcohol misuse, excessive risk taking
  • Discovery of tools used for self-injury (broken disposable razors, lighters, un-bent paper clips)

What can you do to help?

Help the person to find different ways of coping by:

  • Keeping an open mind
  • Making time to listen, but don't pressurise them to talk. Writing down feelings may be easier for them than talking
  • Allowing them to talk about how they feel is probably the most important thing you can do for them. Just feeling that someone is listening and that they're being heard can really help. Good listening is a skill. Always let the person finish what they're saying and, while they're talking, try not to be thinking of the next thing you're going to say

For further information, including information on harm minimisation and where you can get support, please refer to the 'Self-harm: Information and Advice for Parents & Carers leaflet' below.

National advice and helplines

  • Childline- 24hr helpline for children and young people under 18 providing confidential counselling, call 0800 1111
  • PAPYRUS - offers a helpline to give support, practical advice and information to anyone concerned that a young person may be suicidal - HOPELineUK: 08000684141
  • Self injury support (formerly Bristol Crisis Service for Women) - supports women and girls in emotional distress, especially those who self-harm, or their friends or relatives. Limited opening hours: 0117 925 1119
  • National Self-harm Network - support for people who self-harm, provides free information pack to service users
  • Samaritans - confidential, emotional support for anybody who in crisis: 08457 90 90 90
  • Young Minds - information on a range of subjects relevant to young people. Call 0808 802 5544
  • The Mix