How to tell, and what to do, if your child is self-harming

In my last post, I said I was going to be talking a bit about self-harm. At this juncture, I need to make it clear that I am not a doctor, nor am I a psychologist or any other kind of mental-health expert. I’m just a mum who writes, edits and has many years’ experience within the education sector who is currently writing a novel covering this subject.

As such, I did a lot of online researching and speaking to people who could possibly help, or at least offer advice on how best to write about it without either glamorising or demonising the issue. It’s a tricky subject and I am still not entirely whether I can write the story and do it justice. By chance, I came across several people whose children/teens had either gone through this, or were going through it that time, and the overwhelming feeling I came away with was that these parents blamed themselves. They all said they must have done or said something, or not said or done something, that made their child go down this route. Ultimately, they believed they had failed as parents.

Obviously, I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors (and yes, there probably are some truly awful parents out there), but these people all appeared to be stable, relatively happy, human beings who were doing their very best for their families. Yes, they had their ups and downs (as do we all), but they couldn’t shake the belief that they were to blame for what their child was doing. [See, ‘What can you do to help your child?’ below.]

So I’ve put this together in the hope that it may help you if you find yourself in the position of having a child who may be self-harming, or heading towards it:

So what are the signs to look out for? [Note: the word ‘child’ used below indicates a person under the age of 18 years.]

Firstly, it may surprise you to know that there are two types of self-harm; emotional and physical. Each is different and it’s important to note that the first does not necessarily lead to the second:

  1. Emotional signs

This is a tricky one because not all children who have emotional problems will go on to physically self-harm. Emotional problems can be hard to pinpoint because a lot of children will successfully hide their feelings – you’ll just have the sense that something is not right, or perhaps, put it down to hormonal changes. However, the following issues seem to be at the forefront of the lead into physical self-harm:

  1. Low self-esteem – a child with low self-esteem will blame themselves for everything. They may tell you they are stupid, they’re ugly, nobody likes them, they have no friends because… [insert anything here, but there will be an ultimate reason for them to blame themselves]. Some children will turn these beliefs inwards and begin hurting themselves as punishment for their ‘faults’.
  2. Isolation – a child may withdraw from people, both within the home and outside of it. Again, this can be tricky to identify because as a child matures they may naturally want to spend time alone in their rooms away from everyone else (bear in mind, they could just be interacting on social media and not want you to be privy to their chats!). But if they don’t want to spend any time with the rest of the family, or with friends, it could be that you need to have a gentle chat with them.
  3. Crying – a child can find it hard to talk about their feelings and show this by crying over seemingly ‘silly’ things. This could be because they may not have the linguistic skills to express how they feel – but in some instances, they may not know why they feel like they do. If your child is constantly welling up; if you can’t get to the bottom of it, and if it lasts for a long period of time, it may indicate depression. Adults tend to think of depression as being something which affects only adults, but how many adults have you heard saying to their kids, “What have you got to be upset about?” Children can suffer from this too, and it needs careful handling. See your GP.
  4. Anger – your child may have inexplicable bursts of anger and this anger could be directed inwardly, towards themselves, or outwardly, towards others.
  5. Gaining/losing weight – I imagine we’ve all heard about anorexia and bulimia (in some instances these issues can be caused by a child feeling they have no control over certain important aspects of their lives, whereas they can control what goes into their mouths), but the polar opposite, overeating, is also an emotional way of self-harming.
  6. Abuse of drugs or alcohol.

If your child has any of these issues and you are afraid they are self-harming, please seek advice as soon as possible. Your GP should be your first point of contact, but be aware (UK) that any referrals offered may have a long waiting list and your child may not be offered an appointment for some months. When I asked parents what they did when they became aware of problems, nearly all said they (eventually) went to their GP as the first port of call. Some had GPs who offered appointments for the children to go to talk to them during the wait for the specialist appointment, others didn’t. Support for your child can be a hit or miss affair.

  1. Physical signs

These could be cuts*, burns*, bald patches, or bruises, and are usually delivered to the wrists, thighs, arms, chest or head. A child who is physically self-harming will [usually] try to hide the fact so they may start wearing high-neck sweaters or t-shirts with long sleeves, and will wear trousers rather than skirts.

If you do happen to spot any physical signs, the child may have a ready excuse. ‘It was an accident,’ appears to be a commonplace explanation, often accompanied by a convoluted account of how the accident happened. You need to be aware that your child will have agonised over what they will say should their self-harming become apparent, particularly if this is something they have been doing over a period of time and the explanation will, most likely, not ring true.

Okay, so now you have an idea of what can happen and the kinds of things you should be aware of. If your child is self-harming, it needs careful handling.

What can you do to help your child?

The first and most important thing to do is to stay calm. Seeing evidence that your child is harming themselves will have an enormous emotional effect on you, but losing your temper with them, or dissolving into tears, will not help them. It will simply fill them with guilt and reinforce their beliefs that they are a bad person. You must stay calm. The harsh reality is that your feelings are secondary at the time you make the discovery – your support for your child is what is paramount because you do not want the behaviour to escalate.

Something has made your child want to hurt themselves, and if you want them to be open with you, to help them work out why they are acting this way, they need to trust that they can tell you anything and that you won’t pass judgement on them or blame yourself or take it personally.

If your child wants to tell you about it, shut up and listen. Really listen. Don’t put words in their mouths – hear what they are saying.

Do not belittle what is troubling them. Their reasons could be something you consider to be unimportant. The evidence in front of your eyes shows they are not unimportant to your child.

If your child does open up to you, tell them you understand why they are doing it – even if you really don’t. Tell them you want to help. Ask if they know what triggers them to self-harm and ask them what they want you to do to help them stop. Tell them you know that when they hurt themselves it feels like it’s helping them to manage things/to cope, but tell them you want to help them with whatever is causing the problem so that they don’t need to hurt themselves, (which is better in the long run).

If they won’t talk to you, ask if they will talk to someone else.

If they still refuse, give them the ChildLine number: 0800 1111.

Find something physical they can do to let their feelings out safely when they are overwhelmed, e.g. punching a cushion, or punching/kicking a punch-bag. Tell them they can use it whenever they like with no explanation needed.

Keep a stock of ice cubes in the freezer so your child can hold one until it melts.

Get them to take a look at this site: as there lots of tips they may find useful.

*If your child has cut or burned themselves, you need to ensure they are cleaning the wounds properly. If they have wounds that need medical assistance, get them to hospital immediately.

This next point is one of the hardest for parents, but it is important: don’t smother them. You are going to want to be with them 24/7 to make sure they don’t do it again, but if you give them some privacy it will help build their confidence and trust.

Do not tell anybody other than the people who need to know (GP, school, college) and only then with your child’s knowledge/permission. If they tell you about it and ask you not to tell anyone and you do, any trust they held in you will disappear. They may be embarrassed, feel guilty, know that it is a stupid thing to do, and refuse to let you tell anyone else in the belief that they will think less of them. Wait until they are ready for you to do so. Close family members may pick up on things, but again, only speak to them if your child agrees.

Show them you want to help and that you will listen to whatever they have to say, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

Your reactions

You are going to react to this. I know I said above that this is not about you (and it still isn’t), but you are going to have a reaction. As I mentioned at the start, parents will inevitably blame themselves, for not seeing, for saying or doing the wrong things, for a multitude of reasons. Others are angry – with themselves, with the child, with whatever circumstances have brought them to this situation. You need to be able to react, but try not to do it in front of your child. Drive out somewhere secluded, close all the windows and scream out your grief, pain and anger where no-one can hear you.

One parent (whose child eventually received a referral after a 6-month wait) told me that at the first counselling appointment, when her child cried, tears came into her own eyes and she automatically crossed the room to her child’s chair to comfort her. The counsellor was extremely curt, told her to sit back down and said she must not react or she would heap guilt upon her child. As my friend said to me later, ‘She made me feel like I was to blame for XXX’s self-harming. XXX needed a hug. She’d just opened up for the first time since I found out, and it made us both cry. I’m not a robot – I have feelings about all this too, and I need someone to talk to, to make sense of it! And if I don’t react at all, won’t that make XXX feel like I don’t really care?”

She has a point. I don’t know if this was a particularly over-zealous counsellor but the child refused to go back to see her again because of how she treated her mum. They got over it by talking. The floodgates had been opened and her mum was able to pick her way through it without any further outside help. She told me she had no idea if she was doing it right or wrong, but that so long as her child knew she loved her and would help her and never judge her for [what she’d done], they’d wing it.

The last words on this post come from children who were brave enough to talk to me:

15-year-old, A, told me: ‘It’s nothing to do with Mum. This is about me. I know it’s a stupid thing to do but I can’t stop myself. If I don’t do it [cutting] I don’t know if I’m alive. When I hurt myself, I feel something and I know I’m real.’

‘A’ was unable to say why she felt like this.

14-year-old, K, told me that she felt angry about everything. Her parents had recently divorced and both sides were battling for her attention and bad-mouthing each other. She said: ‘I know Dad didn’t love me enough to stay with me and Mum, so why is he pretending he cares now? He was horrible when he was at home, always sarcastic at Mum and ignoring me, but now he suddenly wants me to go stay with him and buys me stuff. He doesn’t want me, he just wants to hurt Mum and I hate him for it, but I hate myself too because I want the stuff and that makes Mum upset because she can’t afford to buy it for me. So if I let him buy me something, I come home and punch myself in the head or in the stomach because then I hurt too, and it’s okay to take the stuff.’

16-year-old, B, refused to eat. He knew it was making him ill, but he liked the power it gave him over his parents: ‘Mum’s always trying to make me eat stuff. She never shuts up about it and Dad’s the same. He shouts. She cries. I’m sick of them telling me what to do all the time. It’s all, go and do your homework [B], go and do this and that and, no, you can’t go round your mate’s when you’ve got all this study to do. I know I need to study! I know I won’t get to uni if I don’t get the grades – they tell us all the time at school. I just want five minutes to be a bloody kid!’

As I said at the start, I am not an expert, so if I have made any mistakes in this please do let me know and I will happily edit any areas that need it. Your experiences may be utterly different from those I have spoken of, and if you would like to comment below to help others who may have experienced the same as you, please, please, do.

Finally, I hope the information I gathered will help, if only in a minor way, if you ever find yourself in this position.

Further help and support for relatives of self-harmers can be found here:


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