Self-harm is any deliberate, non-suicidal behaviour that inflicts physical harm on the body and is aimed at relieving emotional distress. Self-harm is a coping mechanism. An individual harms their physical self to deal with emotional pain, or to break feelings of numbness by arousing sensation.

Shropshire's Safeguarding Children's Board has recently developed a Self-harm Pathway which includes guidance and tools for practitioners working with young people who are self-harming.

As a parent or carer you can help a young person who is self-harming by following the advice given below.

Why do children and young people self-harm?

Factors that motivate people to self-harm include a desire to escape an unbearable situation or intolerable emotional pain, to reduce tension, to express hostility, to induce guilt or to increase caring from others.

A young person may self-harm because they are suffering depression, have a psychiatric disorder, have low self-esteem, have a difficult family life, are suffering from abuse or neglect, have difficulty in forming relationships or because they are isolated or being bullied. There may be many other reasons why a young person chooses to self-harm and it is usually the symptom of an underlying problem.  

Examples of self-harming behaviour:

  • Cutting;
  • Taking an overdose of tablets;
  • Swallowing hazardous materials or substances;
  • Burning, either physically or chemically;
  • Over/under medicating, e.g. misuse of insulin;
  • Punching/hitting/bruising;
  • Hair-pulling/skin picking/head-banging;
  • Episodes of alcohol/drug abuse or over/under eating, at times may be deliberate acts of self-harm;
  • Risky sexual behaviour.

How to spot the signs

The young person's behaviour and emotional well-being may have changed. They may suffer mood swings and become withdrawn. Other signs to be aware of may include:

  • Changes in eating/sleeping habits;
  • Increased isolation from friends/family;
  • Low self-esteem or an increase in negative self-talk;
  • Frequent injuries (i.e. cuts, bruises, burns) with suspicious explanations;
  • Covering up their body (even in warm weather);
  • The presence of behaviours that often accompany self-injury: eating disorders, drugs/alcohol misuse, excessive risk taking;
  • Discovery of tools used for self-injury (broken disposable razors, lighters, un-bent paper clips).

What can you do to help?

Help the person to find different ways of coping by:

  • Keeping an open mind;
  • Making time to listen, but do not pressurise them to talk. Writing down feelings may be easier for them than talking;
  • Allowing them to talk about how they feel is probably the most important thing you can do for them. Just feeling that someone is listening and that they are being heard can really help. Good listening is a skill. Always let the person finish what they are saying and, while they are talking, try not to be thinking of the next thing you are going to say

For further information including information on harm minimisation and where you can get support please refer to the Self-harm: Information and Advice for Parents & Carers leaflet below.


Local publications

National Advice and Help Lines

  • Childline
    24hrs helpline for children and young people under 18 providing confidential counselling
    Tel: 0800 1111
    Offers a helpline to give support, practical advice and information to anyone who is concerned that a young person may be suicidal
    HOPELineUK: 08000684141
  • Bristol Crisis Service for Women (national support available)
    Supports women and girls in emotional distress, especially those who self-harm, or their friends or relatives
    Limited opening hours: 0117 925 1119
  • National Self-harm Network
    Support for people who self-harm, provides free information pack to service users.
  • Samaritans
    Confidential, emotional support for anybody who is in crisis.
    Tel: 08457 90 90 90
  • Young Minds
    Information on a range of subjects relevant to young people.
  • Young Minds Parents Information Service
    Tel: 0808 802 5544
  • The Mix