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I’m Worried My Child is Self-Injuring. What Do I Do?

Trigger warning: please be aware that this article discusses self-harm, methods people use to self-harm and suicidal ideation. 

The content in the following article is potentially triggering, and touches on topics such as self-harm, mental health and suicide. At Kari we want to provide educational resources for people facing these problems. If you think this information may cause further emotional distress, we recommend you stop reading here and reach out to your support network or the below-mentioned resources. 

For reference, throughout this article we will refer to self-harm as self-injury – there are a host of connotations associated with the former which may trigger our audience, so we try to minimise that with more neutral language. This is not the case for quotations, where we have left the original language for accuracy purposes. 

Here are some organisations you can turn to for support:

 

Or, download one of the following recommended apps:

These services and apps have been approved for use by our in-house psychotherapist, Chloe Pollock.

Do you believe that your child or a young person in your life is self-harming? You are probably terribly worried and desperate to help. 

As parents or responsible adults, our instinct is to rush in and stop self-injury immediately, hoping that might solve things. 

The truth is that the act of self-injury is not the problem itself – it’s the solution this vulnerable child has found to treat an issue they are dealing with. 

Only by identifying and addressing the underlying problem can you help the person self-harming to start their journey to recovery. 

What we’ll be looking into:

  • Why do children self-injure? 
  • How to spot the signs that someone is self-injuring 
  • What you should and should not do when you suspect a child is injuring themselves 
  • Coping techniques to help children who are self-injuring 
  • Where to find support for a young person who is hurting themselves 

Why do children self-injure

Trying to understand why a child would hurt themselves can be very difficult for parents and other trusted adults in their life. 

There are many reasons why young people choose to self-injure – it could be a release from overwhelming emotions, a form of punishment for themselves or others, or a way to feel in control in a seemingly ‘out-of-control’ world. 

These are just a few examples, but professionals who work with children who self-injure will be able to name many more.  

What’s consistent in all these examples is that the act of self-injure itself is always secondary to what’s really causing distress. 

What the experts say:

UK charity Harmless offers help and support to people who self-injure and their families. 

They explain: “The main thing to understand is that self-harm is not about the person harming themselves; it’s about the internal pain they are experiencing that causes them to self-harm. 

“Self-harm is a reaction to distress; it is a form of expression, and the best way to help someone who is harming themselves is to help them deal with the issues that are driving the harm. 

“Remember, the individual you are supporting is in distress; their actions are not intended to make you suffer.” 

How to identify if somebody is self-injuring

When people self-injure, they are often consumed by shame and guilt over what they are doing. 

Often, the child will go to great lengths to cover up or be secretive about hurting themselves, so it can be difficult to spot the self-harm when it begins. 

There are different forms of self-injury, such as cutting, burning, biting, bruising, hair-pulling, overdosing and alcohol abuse. 

So, how can you identify if your child is hurting themselves? 

What the experts say:

The charity Young Minds has some great resources for parents and gives some advice on the signs that children could be injuring themselves. 

They explain: “If you are worried your child may be self-harming, here are some things to look out for: 

  • Unexplained cuts, burns, bite marks, bruises or bald patches 
  • Keeping themselves covered, for example, wearing long sleeves or trousers even during hot weather, not wanting to change clothes around others or avoiding activities like swimming 
  • Bloody tissues in waste bins 
  • Seeming low or depressed, for example, withdrawing from friends and family 
  • Blaming themselves for problems or expressing feelings of failure, uselessness or hopelessness 
  • Outbursts of anger or argumentativeness, not in keeping with their personality.* 

 

* during this phase of their life, it is likely that your child or the young person in your life will be going through changes and personality shifts anyway. Try and be mindful about this, and continue to check in with the young person in concern. Sometimes, the young person in question may also exhibit no personality changes – there’s no personality type which allows for easy identification of the issue. 

How to react when you find out a child is self-injuring 

If you discover that your child or a young person in your life is self-injuring, it may be difficult to control your emotions. 

It would be quite understandable for you to feel fear, panic, anxiety, anger, helplessness, or even blame and guilt. 

In the moment, however, it’s imperative to keep calm and remind yourself that self-injury is secondary to the underlying problem. 

What the experts say:

Mental health charity MIND has some good advice about how to react and what the young person in your life needs from you. 

They write: “Try not to panic or overreact. The way you respond will have an impact on how much they open up to you and other people about their self-harm in the future. 

“Try to be non-judgemental. Let the person know that you are there for them. Try to have empathy and understanding about what they are doing. Let them be in control of their decisions. Try to have honest communication, where you take responsibility for any fears you may have.” 

Understanding self-injury

It’s important to remember that self-injury is not the same as suicidal ideation. 

Many people who self-injure do not intend to take their own lives, although the fear you may feel about their safety is quite understandable. 

However, if you take the time to understand the cycle of self-injury, you can begin to support the child to break out of it. 

What the experts say:

Psychotherapist Chloe Pollock has worked extensively with young people and children and supported many who are self-harming. 

She explains: “The cycle of self-injury usually begins with the trigger itself, which is connected to the underlying issue for the young person.  

“The feelings become overwhelming, and so the young person injures themselves to get a moment of release or catharsis from those difficult, often heavy emotions. 

“But once that moment has passed, feelings of guilt and shame can come up, which can be exacerbated by the reactions of others, especially their parents.  

“This difficult situation often leads back to the trigger, which begins the cycle again.” 

The change needs to come from the individual

Breaking the cycle of self-harm has to be done by the individual on their own behalf. 

Parents might feel the urge to beg their child not to hurt themselves ‘for them’, but piling on the emotional pressure and guilt is unhelpful. 

What the experts say:

Charity Harmless provides guidance for anyone dealing with a loved one who is self-injuring and says that it’s vital that the person recovers for their own sake. 

They write: “If the individual works towards reducing or stopping their self-harm, they must do so in their own time and for their own reasons. 

“If they just do it to make you happy, it will not be sustainable or may cause them to hide it. 

“It may also leave them feeling like you just want them to change; that they are not accepted or understood, and this may, in turn, leave them feeling even more isolated and distressed.” 

The difficult truth about self-injuring 

One thing that might be incredibly difficult to accept is that making somebody stop self-injuring may not be the best course of action for them. 

While we are certainly not suggesting that self-injuring is a good solution, when it’s the thing a person in distress is relying on to manage their emotions, taking it away can cause more damage. 

Instead, it’s vital to help the person self-injuring to be safe until they can reduce or stop self-harming altogether. 

What the experts say:

LifeSIGNS is a self-injury guidance and support network for people who need help and support because they are harming themselves. 

They provide a first-aid advice page for people grappling with the impulse to self-injure. 

They write: “When you need to self-injure, please find a safe place where you will not be disturbed and that you feel calm in, always use new blades where you can and have your first aid kit ready to hand.  

“LifeSIGNS does not encourage the use of self-injury. We simply accept that self-injury is a coping method for some people at this time, and we do encourage people who are determined to self-injure to do it in as safe and controlled way as possible to minimise harm.” 

This may be heartbreaking for loved ones to read and accept, but safety is vital to stop an act of self-injury from becoming even more dangerous. 

How to begin the healing journey

Understandably, you will be desperate to find the best way to help the young person in your life to start a journey of recovery. 

Make sure that, if the child is comfortable, you speak to the trusted adults in their school, clubs, and social life to alert them to what’s happening. The school often have a pastoral support team, who will help you feel like you’re working together to address the problem, rather than against one another. 

The way to tackle self-injury is to identify the underlying issue and start to resolve it. 

This work can be done in the home or with the help of mental health professionals. 

What the experts say:

Psychotherapist Chloe Pollock explains: “No one single tool or strategy will help all young people. Each individual can discover what may take the edge off the urge to self-harm for themselves. 

“Finding ways to express themselves can be helpful. Often self-injury is about things feeling bottled up or trapped.  

“[Having the young person] Experimenting with different ways to express yourself may provide some relief – journaling, making a video or drawing/painting. Even screaming into or punching a pillow could help! 

“Distraction techniques can also help to take the attention away from the urge to self-injure in those difficult moments. 

“The distraction is something the young person can immerse themselves in and should require concentration and engagement of the senses.”

How to use displacement to help with self-injuring

Another technique you can use to help a young person who is self-injuring is displacement. 

It could be a physical sensation of pain – such as snapping an elastic band on the wrist. 

Others may feel catharsis from the sight or sensation of blood, so choose to recreate the look and feel of blood using food colouring, paint or drawing with red pens. 

Some children might be most drawn into self-injury because of how they feel when they take care of a wound. So, applying dressings and ointments to the skin could help. 

What the experts say:

Charity Self Injury Support explains the reasoning behind displacement activities and their advice to people who are self-injuring. It may be useful to relay this information to the young person you are concerned about. 

They explain: “Displacement focuses more on trying to recreate or replace what you need from self-harm, especially on a sensory level. 

“Thinking about your experience of self-harm and the feelings and sensations you associate with it can help you to consider what kind of displacement activities you might find helpful. 

“You might want to recreate a feeling of release or control, or you might want to focus on physical sensations or responses.” 

Our body holds everything, supporting a young person to regulate their body can have a huge impact on their thoughts and emotions.   

The importance of talking 

Whether you and the young person in your life try distraction and/or displacement techniques, the vital key to recovery is talking and communication. 

Once you begin unpacking what’s going on inside to drive people to self-injure, you can start to tackle the real issue.

It’s a good idea to help the young person start a diary where they can write down the triggers that drive them to self-injure. 

Self-injury is always triggered by something – it can be a thought, feeling or sensation inside – even something happening outside of them. 

Identifying those emotions, experiences, and catalysts will help them begin to manage them in different ways. 

It might be appropriate to involve a counsellor or mental health professional to try talking therapies. 

What the experts say:

Psychotherapist Chloe Pollock explains, “For a young person, self-injury is often a way of coping with emotional overwhelm the best way they know how. We can help to equip young people with tools to manage their emotions in another way. 

“That might not be something you can achieve straight away, but you can work towards it through talking and supporting your young person when trying different coping strategies. 

“Finding ways to connect with the young person is important – self-injury can be a lonely place and builds barriers between themselves and people they love and care about. 

“In doing so, you can hopefully find ways forward together that are healing and healthy.” 

Look after yourself, too

When you are in the middle of a situation as scary and worrying as a child self-injuring, it’s easy to lose sight of your own mental wellbeing. 

Make sure that you have people to talk to and professional support if you need it. 

Thankfully, there are some great resources to help people who self-injure and their loved ones. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help for yourself, as well as the young person in your life. 

You’re probably not going to get everything right – it’s usual to make mistakes or allow your emotions to drive you in this context. This is a learning experience for you, too. 

Remember,

Here are some organisations you can turn to for support:

 

Or, download one of the following recommended apps:

Evidence Based
This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional.

Did you find this article helpful this article? 

If so, you can read related Kari Health articles here:

Self-Injury in Adolescents

How to Take Care of Yourself During a Divorce

How To Feel More Body Positive During Your Period

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