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 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.
Self-harm is generally a sign that a person is in deep distress.
Self-harm needs to be taken seriously. Don’t ignore it. 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. Teenagers who are self-harming might:
- cut, scratch, carve, brand or mark themselves
- pick at scabs so they don’t heal
- pull their own hair
- burn or graze themselves
- bite, bruise or hit themselves
- hit parts of their bodies 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 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
Teenagers who self-harm often 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:
- avoid activities like swimming, where their legs, arms or torso can be seen, or wear clothes that cover their arms and legs
- hide objects like razor blades, stencil knives, lighters and matches.
- seem to be using bandaids and antiseptic more often
- have changes in their sleeping or eating patterns
- lose interest in activities they usually enjoy, or stop seeing friends
- skip school or have a drop in performance at school.
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, it’s natural for you to 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 and reassuring, not judging or reacting negatively, and actively listening, you might get insight into your child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour and ideas about how to 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.
- Ask your child to tell you where they are or to focus on what’s going on around them. This can help to bring them back to the present.
- 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.’
Coping strategies for self-harming
Your child could try the following coping strategies when they feel like self harming.
- Find you and ask you to distract them from their thoughts.
- Contact an online or phone support service, like Lifeline on 131 114 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
- Do mindfulness activities, breathing exercises or muscle relaxation.
- Go for a walk or a run.
- Do something creative, like drawing, writing or playing music.
- Replace the self-harming with something else, like drawing on their body with a pen, rubbing ice on their skin, putting a rubber band around their wrist and gently flicking it, yelling into a pillow, hitting a cushion or eating something spicy.
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
Your child might be able to stop self-harming on their own, but support from a professional like a GP, counsellor or psychologist is important.
A health professional can recommend therapies to suit your child’s needs. Treatment might include psychological therapy or counselling and parent or family therapy.
Counselling can help your child understand why they’re self-harming, what triggers the self-harming and how to stop. It might include helping your child understand and manage strong emotions and learn more effective ways of managing and expressing strong thoughts and feelings.
If your child isn’t comfortable seeing a health professional, you can suggest they use online or phone support services like Lifeline, Kids Helpline and headspace. An app like Calm Harm might help too.
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, send you a text or look after your other children while you take time out for yourself.
- Make time each day to be on your own to read a book, watch a TV show or write about your thoughts and feelings. Start with 5 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 how your child’s behaviour is affecting 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.