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Young people and self-harm

We've got advice to help you understand why children and teenagers self-harm, and what you can do to support them.

If a young person in your life is self-harming it can be distressing and confusing. It may be difficult to start a conversation with them.

They might be doing it because they don’t have the words to explain what they’re experiencing. But it’s important you know that you can support them. There are resources and advice for children and young people on Childline.

Why do teenagers and children self-harm?

The reasons children and teenagers self-harm will be different for everyone. They might not be able to name any one reason they’re self-harming.

For many young people, the physical pain is a distraction from the emotional pain they're struggling with.

Some experiences or emotions can make self-harm more likely in children, including:

  • experiencing depression, anxiety or eating problems
  • having low self-esteem or feeling like they’re not good enough
  • being bullied or feeling alone
  • experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect
  • grieving or having issues with family relationships
  • feeling angry, numb or like they don't control their lives.
Illustration of child sitting in a shell


5% of all of all Childline counselling sessions related to self-harm in 2020/21.

Signs of self-harm in children and teenagers

It can be hard to recognise the signs of self-harm in children and teenagers, but as a parent or carer it’s important to trust your instincts if you’re worried something’s wrong.

Signs to look out for can include:  

    • covering up, for example by wearing long sleeves a lot of the time, especially in summer
    • unexplained bruises, cuts, burns or bite-marks on their body
    • blood stains on clothing, or finding tissues with blood in their room
    • becoming withdrawn and spending a lot of time alone in their room
    • avoiding friends and family and being at home
    • feeling down, low self-esteem or blaming themselves for things
    • outbursts of anger, or risky behaviour like drinking or taking drugs.

How to support a child who self-harms

Offer them emotional support

Finding out that your child’s self-harmed can be hard to accept, and it’s natural to feel anxious or upset. Some parents and carers might blame themselves or feel powerless to help. But you can try:

  • showing them you’re there whenever and however they choose to talk. They may prefer to message you about it rather than speak directly
  • listening and not asking too many questions about why they've self-harmed, which may make them feel judged
  • letting them know that you care about them and want to help them find healthier ways to cope
  • reassuring them it’s OK to be honest with you about what they’re going through. 

Focus on what's causing the self-harm

  • Remember, an underlying problem often causes self-harm. It can be more helpful to focus on what’s causing their feelings rather than on the self-harm itself.
  • You can talk to their GP, someone at their school or the NSPCC Helpline. It can also help to ask their GP about a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
  • Hiding or taking away something a child is using to self-harm can lead to them finding other ways to hurt themselves. You could try asking your child what would be most helpful for them. Let them know they can tell you when they feel they want to hurt themselves.
  • Any serious injuries should be treated right away in a hospital.

Encourage them to find healthy ways to cope

Suggesting something your child could do to cope with difficult feelings can be helpful.

Young people who’ve spoken to us have found it helpful to:

  • paint, draw or scribble in red ink
  • hold an ice cube in their hand until it melts
  • write down their negative feelings, then rip the paper up
  • listen to music
  • punch or scream into a pillow
  • talk to friends or family
  • take a bath or shower
  • exercise
  • watch their favourite funny film.

Childline has many self-harm coping techniques for children and young people. The wall of expression game can also be a helpful way for young people to deal with difficult feelings.

Help them to build their confidence

Many children who self-harm suffer from low self-esteem or confidence. You can help by:

  • Reminding them about the things they do well
  • Learning something new together, like playing guitar or making crafts.
  • Writing a list of all the things that make you proud of your child and giving it to them. Try to focus on things about their personality rather than things like their academic achievements or sporting abilities.

Childline also has advice for children and young people on building their confidence and self-esteem.

Worried about a child?

Find out more

You can help us to support more families.

Illustration credits
Top banner and page body illustrations by Ana Yael.
Parenting advice row: see individual pages for details.