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Self-Harm Explained

We share what to do if a child you know is self-harming.

Boy leaning against window staring into distance thoughtful

Finding out a child has been self-harming...

...might leave you feeling upset, worried and confused.

  • It can feel confronting to talk about it
  • Self-harming behaviour may not get better on its own without professional support
  • Even if you don’t know what to do, just being there to listen and offer help is important

Some facts about self-harm

Some of these may surprise you...

  • Self-harm does not mean a child wants to die
  • It can be a symptom of psychological distress
  • Self-harm is also known as self-injury or self-mutilation
  • Self-harming is not suicidal behaviour
  • Self-harm is a behaviour, not a mental illness
  • It can begin as early as 12 years old, sometimes younger

"Some children may hide their self-harm injuries, while others might show their scars in public."

- Sarah, Parentline Counsellor

Different types of self-harm

Self-harm varies from person to person.

There isn’t one type of self-harming behaviour.

It may include one or more of the following:

  • Cutting or scratching - this is most common
  • Banging or punching objects or self, resulting in injury
  • Intentional overdose on drugs or medications
  • Pulling out their own hair including head, arms and legs
  • Burning or picking the skin so wounds cannot heal
  • Deliberate risk-taking with the intention of injury

The best way to find out why...

…is to ask the young person when they are feeling safe and supported enough to talk about it.

  • Sometimes the young person themselves may not fully understand why they self-harm
  • The reasons for self-harm are different for each young person
  • The type of self-harm can be different for each situation

Understanding self-harm

While everybody is different, some reasons why young people self-harm may include:

To escape unbearable emotional distress

To feel something when they are ‘numb’ inside

To cope with overwhelming or inexpressible emotions

To show evidence of their distress on the outside

To ‘punish’ themselves if they feel blamed or guilty

It has become compulsive and they feel unable to stop

Supporting a young person who self-harms

Here are some things you can do:

  • Attend to any immediate safety concerns - get medical help if needed
  • Don’t ignore the behaviour in the hope that it will stop
  • Discuss things calmly and listen without judgement 
  • Show support and understanding; remind them you care
  • Avoid threats or telling them to ‘just stop it’
  • Encourage and facilitate access to professional help
  • Ensure first aid supplies are available for any future self-harming
  • Remove anything that they could use to hurt themselves with
  • Learn more about self-harm through online research, books and articles

You are not alone

There is support out there to help you and your family.

This content was last reviewed 31/10/2018

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