Self-harm occurs when someone – often a young person – deliberately injures or mutilates their own body as a way of dealing with emotional pain, anger or frustration.
Those who self-harm are not attention seeking – and are not usually suicidal (although some forms of self-harming can result in accidental death). Rather, they are struggling to find a way to cope with or express their overwhelming emotional distress. Cutting or burning their body might seem extreme to others, but it can be the only way they know to let their feelings out.
The charity Young Minds says self-harming is a very common behaviour in young people, with one in twelve young people and 10% of 15-16 years old engaging in the practice. Girls are slightly more likely to self-harm than boys, and most of those who self-harm begin doing it during their teen or pre-adolescent years.
It can be hard for parents and carers to understand why their child would deliberately hurt themself – you might feel upset that your child didn’t come to you with their problems or guilty you didn’t notice their self-harming earlier – but you shouldn’t blame yourself or your child.
Why do young people self-harm?
Self-harm may seem an extreme way of dealing with emotional problems, but for many young people it works because:
- It gives them a sense of control over painful feelings by diverting their attention to physical pain.
- When feelings of distress are building up inside them, self-harming can almost feel like a release.
- It expresses their internal pain visually instead of needing words.
- It enables them to feel something again after blocking out distressing emotions or a traumatic memory, e.g. rape.
- They want to punish themselves, perhaps because they have been abused and believe they are worthless or a bad person as a result
- They enjoy – even become addicted to – the temporary feeling of euphoria that occurs immediately after they have hurt themself.
Unfortunately, self-harming can be habit-forming.
Problems that lead to self-harming
Self-harming behaviour is often the result of another problem which the young person doesn’t know how to deal with and can sometimes be a cry for help.
Some examples include:
In what ways do young people self-harm?
Self-harm can take many different forms, but the most common ways young people hurt themselves are:
- cutting – with razorblades, knives or scissors
- punching or hitting themself
- pushing sharp objects into their skin
- deliberately bruising their body or even breaking a bone
- restricting their food intake
- pulling their hair out (trichotillomania).
Signs your child is self-harming
Young people usually try to keep self-harming a secret so don’t feel guilty if you don’t know about it for a long time.
Typical signs include:
- unexplained cuts, bruises and cigarette burns
- always covering up their arms and legs
- signs they have been pulling out their hair.
- dramatic mood changes, e.g. tearfulness, irritability
- withdrawal from friends and family, i.e. staying at home or in their room
- changes in weight and being secretive about eating
The danger of self-harm blogs
Rather than make young people feel less alone and encourage them to stop self-harming, some online communities and websites actually make things worse. These sites may urge young people to share self-harm images, making them want to hurt themselves even more.
Childline has lots of information and support for young people who self-harm, including coping techniques and message boards.
With understanding and support, it is possible for a young person to break the cycle of self-harming. Even when they want to get better, it can still be hard for them to talk about their behaviour. Don’t judge, be patient and help them get the right support.
First, talk to your GP. They will decide if your child needs professional help for an underlying mental health issue and can refer them to the right people for treatment.
If abuse was the trigger for self-harming, it is important to report it.
Young Minds publishes information for self-harmers and has a parent helpline.
Harmless supports those who self-harm and has online resources for professionals.
Time to Change Wales encourages people to speak up about mental health problems and has lots of information on its website.