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Supporting a child who is self-harming

Self harm, or self-injury is when someone deliberately does things that appear to cause physical harm to themselves.

It can still be very hard for parents and carers to know about - or witness - self-harming behaviour in their children.

Cutting the arms or the back of the legs is the most common form of self-harm, but it can take many forms, including burning, biting, hitting, banging head onto walls, pulling out hair (trichotilliomania), inserting objects into the body or taking overdoses.

Other risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected sex can also be considered as a form of self-harm.

Reasons why people may self-harm

A person may self-harm to help them cope with negative feelings and difficult experiences, to feel more in control, or to punish themselves.

It can be a way of relieving overwhelming feelings that build up inside to:

  • reduce tension
  •  manage extreme emotional upset
  •  provide a feeling of physical pain to distract from emotional pain
  • express emotions such as hurt, anger or frustration
  • regain control over feelings or problems
  • punish themselves or others

The feelings or experiences that might be connected to self-harm include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, gender identity, sexuality, abuse, school problems, bullying, social media pressure, family or friendship troubles and bereavement.

Over time, self-harming can become a habit that is hard to stop.

How to tell if your child self-harming

As a parent, you might suspect that your child is self-harming.

If you are worried, keep an eye open for the following signs:

  • unexplained cuts, burns, bite-marks, bruises or bald patches
  • keeping themselves covered such as avoiding swimming or changing clothes around others
  • bloody tissues in waste bins
  • being withdrawn or isolated from friends and family
  • low mood, lack of interest in life, depression or outbursts of anger
  • blaming themselves for problems or expressing feelings of failure, uselessness, or hopelessness

What to do

Do not panic

Learning that someone you care about is self-harming can be hard but if you’re not sure how to react, it is often enough to simply be there for them.

Trust yourself, although at the time you think haven’t got a clue what’s going on, you probably have.

 Offer to listen

Allow them to speak without interruption or judgement. For them self-harm may feel like the only way to express strong emotions. If someone feels able to open up to you it can be a huge breakthrough, so try not to jump to conclusions or make any fast decisions.

My dad said very little. He just listened. It was exactly what I needed.

Help them to find support

Take the initiative and find out about mental health and other support services in the area. It may also help if you support your friend to make an appointment and offer to accompany them.

Be there for them for the long haul

Do not expect a quick fix – some people self-harm for years as a way of dealing with difficult emotions or situations.

Most people do not want to be defined by their self-harm, so keep on being a friend to them as normal too.   

She often said the wrong things and she didn’t understand at first, but she was there and she cared. That was the most important thing.

Look after yourself

It’s hard to support someone if you’re feeling overwhelmed or out of your depth.

Setting boundaries to what you can offer and getting support for yourself are important. Be honest about how you’re feeling and do not take on more than you can cope with.

If you’re feeling upset or struggling to cope yourself, talk to someone you trust – you’re doing a great thing by supporting your friend but if you’re worried or feeling down, make sure you speak to someone.

Where to find local support

NELFT - provides an extensive range of integrated community and mental health services for people. We are the provider of all age eating disorder services and child and adolescent mental health services across Kent and Medway.

How to get in touch and refer

NELFT believe in an open and easy to access service, this is why they offer a self-referral service.

If you feel like you might benefit from some of the self-help resources on offer you can access these for yourself for free by signing up to MindFresh.

Find out more about the services and support offer available to you by calling 0300 300 1981 to be put through to the Medway Young Persons' Wellbeing Service.

Where to find them

NELFT have offices and clinics across much of Medway and will be as flexible as possible in where we offer to see you. Get in touch by calling 0300 300 1981 and we can talk this through

National support Provides a safe place to talk, share stories and ask for advice. : Run by the Bristol Crisis Service for Women, they support girls in distress and have a text and email service too. Text: 0780 047 2908 Monday to Friday 7am to 9pm.

Childline: A free helpline that provides counselling for children. Helpline: 0800 1111 Text: 0800 400 222. Monday to Friday from 9:30am to 9:30pm and weekends from 11am to 8pm.

Samaritans: Confidential support for anyone in crisis. Helpline: 08457 90 90 90 (UK) Text: 08457 90 91 92 or email: