Self-harm is when people deliberately hurt themselves as a way of coping with painful or strong emotions. It’s a way of trying to get control over the feelings or relief from them.
For some people, the attempt to control or stop feelings through self-harm is actually a way of trying to heal themselves. Other people self-harm so they can ‘feel something’ rather than feeling nothingness or emptiness. Some people self-harm to express feelings of hopelessness, seek help, influence other people’s behaviour, or to ‘get back at’ others.
Self-harm is generally a sign that a person is in deep distress.
Self-harm needs to be taken seriously. It can become a habit or a compulsion. Repeated self-harm can lead to serious injuries, scarring, medical conditions and accidental death. And people who self-harm are at increased risk of attempting suicide.
Self-harm: how it happens
Self-harm happens in different ways, some more obvious and serious than others. Forms of self-harm include:
- cutting, scratching, carving, branding or marking the body
- picking at scabs so they don’t heal
- pulling hair
- burning or grazing yourself
- biting, bruising or hitting yourself
- hitting a part of your body on something hard.
Digital self-harm or self-cyberbullying is when teenagers create alternative online identities for themselves on social media sites and post cruel comments about themselves. The alternative identities might also get cruel comments from other people.
Some teenagers and young people deal with strong emotions in less obvious but still serious ways. These include binge-drinking, taking a lot of drugs, having unsafe sex or starving themselves.
Signs of self-harm
Young people who self-harm sometimes try to hide it. They’re often ashamed of their behaviour and worry that people will be angry with them, reject them or not understand why they’re self-harming.
If you’re concerned that your child might be self-harming, here are some signs to watch out for.
Your child might:
- have changes in their sleeping or eating patterns
- lose interest in activities they usually enjoy, or stop seeing friends
- avoid activities like swimming, where their legs, arms or torso can be seen, or wear clothes that cover their arms and legs
- skip school or have a drop in performance at school
- hide objects like razor blades, stencil knives, lighters and matches.
Your child might:
- have big changes in mood
- be irritable a lot of the time
- have ongoing temper outbursts
- feel sad, empty or hopeless
- feel worthless or very guilty
- stop caring about their appearance.
Your child might:
- have injuries that they can’t or won’t explain
- be agitated
- seem very slow or tired or have very little energy.
If your child is self-harming, it's important to step in early and encourage your child to get professional support. With this support, your child can learn positive ways of handling strong feelings. This can break the self-harm cycle and prevent future self-harming.
If your child is self-harming: what to do
If you find out your child is self-harming, you might feel afraid, guilty, shocked, panicked or even angry.
It can be hard to understand what’s going on and why – and your child might not have the words to tell you. But by staying calm, being respectful, not judging and actively listening, you might get some insight into your child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour and some ideas about how you can help.
The most important thing is letting your child know that strong feelings are normal – but they’re also hard to have. And when you’re in your teens, things can seem even harder.
If you find your child self-harming
If you find your child in the act of self-harming, it’s best to speak calmly, directly and without judgment. You might say something like, ‘I can see that you’re very upset. I hadn’t realised things had built up so much. You can talk to me about this. I won’t get angry at you’.
It’s best to avoid reacting with anger or threats. Saying that your child is just doing it for attention won’t help either. Most self-harm isn’t about getting attention.
It’s common for people to be ‘zoned out’ or unresponsive during the act of self-harm. If you find your child like this, say your child’s name calmly and quietly and ask your child to tell you where they are. Ask your child if you can get help.
Provide first aid for any cuts or injuries in a calm way without fuss. Get medical attention for anything that looks serious. This can show your child that their body is important and worth caring for.
You might say something like, ‘I’d like to help you heal those cuts’ or ‘Let’s get some antiseptic to help those cuts heal quickly’.
Talking about self-harming
You can ask your child some questions about the self-harm, bearing in mind that people who self-harm might feel ashamed about it. That’s why it’s important to stay calm, not judge and listen silently without interrupting.
- ‘I noticed the scars on your arm. I hope it’s OK to say that. Can you tell me about the times when you hurt yourself?’
- ‘I can see that you’re very upset. You might be scared. I’m scared too. Together we can work this out.’
- ‘The fact that you’re self-harming tells me you’re very upset. You might not like the fact that I’ve found out. I’m not going to ask you a lot of questions but I do want to help – when you’re ready.’
If you think your child needs urgent medical attention – for example, because of serious wounds or an overdose, or because they’re feeling suicidal – call 000 for an ambulance or take your child to an emergency department.
Getting help for self-harming teenagers
A health professional might recommend different therapies depending on your child’s needs. Treatment might include psychological therapy or counselling and parent or family therapy.
Counselling can help teenagers understand why they’re self-harming, what triggers the self-harming and how to stop. It might include helping teenagers to understand and manage strong emotions and learn more effective ways of managing and expressing strong thoughts and feelings.
Looking after yourself
It’s important to look after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing. This can help you stay calm and consistent when things get tough, which is good for your child too.
- Ask for help from family, friends or members of your support network. You can ask them to give you a call or send you a text, or to look after your other children while you take some time out for yourself.
- Make some time every day to be on your own to read a book, watch a TV show or write about your thoughts and feelings. Start with five minutes at the end of the day if that’s all you have.
- Make time for some physical activity – for example, walking, yoga or swimming. A bit of exercise can give you more energy for supporting your child.
- Seek help for yourself if you’re distressed, or you just want to talk about the effect of your child’s behaviour on you. Your GP, a psychologist or a counsellor is a good person to talk to about this.
Looking after yourself also gives your child an example of how it’s good to seek help when you’re distressed.