Why People Self Harm and How to Help

*Please note if your child or someone you know has just attempted suicide, is seriously injured or in a life-threatening condition please call 999 and stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

The information below is not intended as medical advice and is only intended to offer points you may wish to consider in 'non-emergency situations', together with signposting for more support. You should consult an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your child or someone you know. 

We all have coping mechanisms - it is just that some of them are harmful and self-harm is sadly all too common with anecdotal evidence suggesting a tragic fallout of the pandemic has been an increase in young people self-harming. 

  • One in ten adolescents report having self-harmed. That's three young people in every class of 30. 
  • It is more common in girls than boys. 
  • While most young people who self-harm will stop before adulthood, around one in ten will continue into their adult lives (Moran et al., 2012). 

Why do young people self-harm? 

The most common form of self-harm is cutting but it can also include burning, hitting their head or limbs against objects or walls, scratching, interfering with existing wounds, pulling out hair, breaking bones, or self-poisoning with medications or other substances. 

The reasons for self-harm are individual, varied, and often complex. It is almost always a sign of distress and is associated with various emotional, personal or lifestyle circumstances. Reasons include:

  • a response or distraction to emotional distress, 
  • using pain to 'wake themselves up' from feeling numb and 'unreal' 
  • a form of self-punishment in response to feelings of self-loathing or perceived guilt. 
  • a way of bringing attention to emotional suffering that is difficult to express in words.
  • NOTE: The majority of young people do not self-harm in an attempt to end their lives but sometimes it can be a suicide attempt and there is a risk of accidental death or serious injury from many forms of self-harm.

It's important to understand that self harm is a coping mechanism, and the real key will be to deal with whatever the young person is 'coping with'. In the short term there may be alternative coping mechanisms that they might use that are healthier than self-harm, but simply ordering them to stop their self-harm could be counter-productive.

Parental Response

A swift and appropriate response can make all the difference. When dealing with a young person who has self-harmed or has suicidal thoughts try and remember the following. 

  • Try to stay non-judgemental. Don't make your child feel 'bad' about what they've done. 
  • Use neutral terms like 'trying to end your life' rather than 'commit suicide', which implies an offence. 
  • Treat your child with respect - don't 'talk down' to them. 
  • Be patient and give them time. Don't pressure them and listen to what they have to say.
  • Don't try to use authoritarian means to force them to stop any self-harm. Don't threaten or try to coerce them. 
  • Be aware of your body language - eye rolls, folded arms, a cross look, sighs can make a young person seeking help feel like they are wasting your time or getting the dismissive, angry or disappointed reaction they most feared.
  • Be aware of any preconceptions and prejudices you may hold about self-harm and/or suicidal thoughts. 
  • Don't make assumptions. Even if your child has told you about self-harm and/or suicidal thoughts before, their reasons and motivation may be different this time. It's important to understand 'the why'. 
  • Don't dismiss 'minor wounds' or non-lethal attempts to end life as unimportant. The severity of injury has no relation to the degree of distress that led to it. 
  • Use a safe place to discuss the issue - somewhere private, calm and quiet, where you are unlikely to be interrupted.
  • Make sure you have enough time for a conversation - put phones & work away, fully focus on them. 

Further resources

Where To Find Support

  • NHS Every Mind Matters mental health support
  • The Samaritans provide a free 24-hours a day, 7 days a week support service on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Mind - the Mental health charity's advice on wellbeing during Coronavirus 
  • Young Minds mental health support including specific support to mental health wellbeing in the Coronavirus context. 
  • The Ollie Foundation - suicide awareness and support
  • Papyrus - A service for young people who are thinking about suicide, or those with concerns about others. Support line (10:00-22:00 weekdays/14:00-22:00 weekends): 0800 068 41 41.
  • Calm Harm - an app specifically targeted for young people's mental health. 
  • Students Against Depression - a site with resources for young people with low mood, depression and suicidal thinking.
  • Childline 0800 11 11 - practical advice and helpline for a wide range of mental health and children's support issues.
  • The Mix - a wide range of mental health support service for 13 - 25 year olds. 
  • Shout 85258 - a free 24-7 text service for anyone in crisis in the UK.
  • The Calm Zone - The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) a site specifically targeted at supporting men and preventing male suicide.
  • Learn Safe - family and young person supports for keeping safe online. 
  • The Whole Child - a range of parent resources to support 13-18 year olds 
  • Happy Maps - a parent facing resource with advice on children's behaviour and mental health
  • Sane - support site for mental illness
  • Rethink - expert information and listings of local resources and groups to support mental health

* Please note that Bright Horizons has no control of the contents of third party sites and cannot assume responsibility for the operation or content of these sites.