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Self-harm in children and young people - information and advice for parents and carers

What is self-harm in children and young people?

Self-harm is when someone does something to intentionally hurt themselves.

Often a child or young person may self-harm to soothe deep sadness or express overwhelming emotions that they can’t communicate in words or clear thoughts.

They might self-harm if they are being bullied or feel helpless about something. 

Self-harm behaviour in children and young people could include:

  • hair-pulling
  • repeated scab picking, scratching or burning the skin 
  • cutting parts of the body
  • hitting oneself against objects
  • taking a drug overdose
  • swallowing substances or objects
  • restricting food intake - see our advice page 'Eating Disorders in children and young people'

"You may experience shock, disbelief and confusion to find that your child is self-harming, along with a multitude of other feelings, but it is important that you stay calm, listen to your child, and support them to seek help."

Spotting the signs of self-harm in children and young people

Self-harm is more common amongst teenagers, but signs of self-harm are occurring in primary-school-aged children.

You may notice signs that they are:

  • Being withdrawn, anxious or depressed
  • Not wanting to wear clothes with short sleeves
  • Unexplained cuts, scratches and bruises, and hair pulling.

Download our Zcard which was created with young people - I feel like hurting myself

Also see our leaflet - Self-harm, a guide for parents and carers

You can find further information on recognising the signs of self-harm in children from these websites: 

NHS Choices Website - has some useful information about the signs to look out for, and why people self harm. 

Harmless UK website - are a voluntary organisation who support those who self-harm, their friends and family. 

Why do young people self-harm?

To understand why a child or young person may be self-harming and how best to support them, it is important to know the four types of self-harm.

These are:

1. Self-harming to manage their feelings: They find it difficult to put their feelings into words. The physical pain of it distracts them when they are in emotional pain. For them self-harming helps them to release tension. 

2. Self-harming to communicate: They hurt themself to show others how they feel. This is NOT attention seeking, but to show that they are in need of support.

3. Self-harming to have control: They are self-harming as a way to help them stay in control of their day to day life.

4. Self-harming to punish themselves: Because of feelings or behaviours they think are their fault. To punish themselves if they are feeling angry towards someone but they are unable to tell the person how they feel. Because they feel hate towards themselves, which is a common reason why someone might self-harm. 

Self-harm and suicide 

People who self-harm don’t usually want to die.

They may be self-harming to help deal with life, rather than a way of trying to end it.

Self-harm can increase their risk of having suicidal thoughts or of suicide by accidental death, so for this reason all self-harm behaviour should be taken seriously.

Please see the below video from the Suffolk Psychology in Schools Team which has some good advice for parents and carers.

Talking to your child/young person about thoughts and feelings

The NHS Choices website has an advice page on how to start a conversation with your child. Visit: NHS Website -Talking to children about their feelings page

The MindEd-for families website has THIS resourceful information about Tallking to My Child

Useful Self-harm Resources to support children and young people

Useful websites and resources:

ThisMayHelp website -How to help someone who self-harms

Help Guide - cutting and self-harm 

How to make a self-soothe box 

The Childline website - has lots of advice about self-harm coping mechanisms. Visit www.childline.org.uk

Coping with self-harm - a guide for parents and carers.

Young Minds guide to Self-Harm and getting the help you need.

The Source Website for Young People Self-harm advice

Royal College of Pschiatrists Website - Mental health books 

Suffolk Libraries - has a list of self-help books suitable for young people and parent/carers available to request. Visit: www.suffolklibraries.co.uk  

Wellbeing Apps - For helpful Apps that can provide some in-hand support to a young person struggling, visit:The Source - 'if the App fits' page 

I think my child is self-harming, what should I do?
  • Self-harm is ‘not attention seeking’ so don't ignore it.

  • Make an appointment at your GP surgery for advice and support. 

  • Contact the Emotional Wellbeing Hub Or if you live in Lowestoft and Waveney Just One Norfolk 

For urgent mental health support call 111, option 2 NHS Mental Health Crisis Line (24/7 helpline for anyone of any age.) If life-threatening medical help is needed call 999.

Who else can I speak to for advice?


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