Self-harm - guidance for parents

About 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at some point, but it can happen at any age.


Self-harm happens when someone hurts or harms him or herself. They may:

  • Take too many tablets
  • Cut themselves
  • Burn their body
  • Bang their head
  • Throw their body against something hard
  • Punch themselves
  • Stick things in their body
  • Swallow things that they shouldn't
  • Some people self harm only once or twice, but others do it regularly - it can become almost an addiction.

Why do people self harm?

  • It usually happens in a state of high emotion and inner turmoil. This may be caused by abuse, feeling depressed, feeling bad about themselves or relationship problems.
  • They may do it because they feel that people don't listen to them, hopelessness, isolation, feeling alone, out of control or powerless. People whom self-harm are more likely to have been abused in childhood.
  • Self-harming can help young people to feel in control and less tense. So, it can be a 'quick fix' for feeling bad. 

What should I do if my child is self-harming?

1 in 3 people who self-harm will do it again within a year. People who self-harm are 50 times more likely to kill themselves. The risk increases with age and is much greater for men. Cutting can cause scarring, numbness or paralysis. 

The first step is to talk to them. Talking can help them feel less alone, or to see their problems more clearly.

  • Listen to them without being critical. This can be very hard if you are upset or angry. Try to focus on them rather than your feelings - this is hard.
  • Try to understand their feelings, and then move the conversation to other things.
  • Take the mystery out of self-harm by helping them find out about it on the Internet or at the library.
  • Help them to think about their self-harm not as a shameful secret, but as a problem to be sorted out.


  • Try to be their therapist - you have enough to deal with as their parent/carer.
  • Expect them to stop overnight - it's difficult and takes time.
  • Get angry; this may make them feel worse. Talk calmly about the effect it has on you - in a way that shows how much you care for them.
  • Struggle with them when they are about to self-harm - it's better to walk away and to suggest they come and talk about it rather than do it.
  • Make them promise not to do it again or make your involvement conditional on them stopping.

If they do not feel they can talk to you then try to get them to speak to a friend or teacher. It's also a good idea to speak to your GP. ChildLine have a free national helpline for young people, you could ask your child to call them on 0800 1111.

Further advice 

See our links page for further information.