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What is self-harm?

We appreciate that this is a difficult topic, but it’s an important one, and something that you have asked for as parents and carers.

The information in this guide will help you understand more about self-harm and what to do if you are worried about your child or someone you know who is self-harming. It should hopefully help explain:

  • What self-harm is.
  • How your adolescent child can help themselves and how you can help support them.
  • Where to go for further help.

Usually, self-harm is a behaviour where someone harms themselves as a way of coping with difficult thoughts and feelings. The more common methods used are cutting, burning and non-lethal overdoses. However, there are several other forms adolescent children use, for instance, hitting, headbanging, suffocation, hanging, scratching, pinching and restricting their eating.

Some young people who self-harm also experience suicidal thoughts and urges, but this isn’t always the case. As stated above, many young people self-harm as a way of managing difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions – not to end their life. However, self-harm can result in accidental death.


What can make an adolescent child vulnerable to self-harm?

It is worth highlighting at this point that mental health does not discriminate. We are all prone to experiencing poor mental health, so there is no hard and fast rule what makes a child more vulnerable compared to another. But research and clinical experience has suggested some common factors which include, but are not limited to:

  • Individual factors: Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness, poor problem-solving, impulsivity, eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, bullying (for example, because of race or sexuality).
  • Family factors: Mental health difficulties in the family, poor parental relationships, drug/alcohol misuse in the family, unreasonable expectations, conflict between the young person and parents, excessive punishments or restrictions, family history of self-harm, abuse, neglect.
  • Social factors: Difficulties in peer relationships, bullying, peer rejection, availability of methods of self-harm, friends who self-harm, media and internet influences.


How does self-harm help manage difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions?

Self-harm can serve several different purposes. These are some of them:

  • Identifying with a peer group.
  • A form of escape.
  • Provides a feeling of physical pain to distract from the emotional pain felt.
  • Manage extreme or overwhelming feelings.
  • Reduce tension.
  • Communicate their distress to others.


Alternatives to self-harm

It is recommended that adolescent children use distractions and alternative techniques to help reduce their urge to self-harm. Some examples are:


  • Go for a walk.
  • Contact a friend.
  • Watch a favourite TV programme or film.
  • Listen to soothing music.
  • Spend time with a pet.
  • Have a relaxing bath.
  • Have a cold shower.
  • Talk or text their parent/carer.

Releasing emotions:

  • Flick an elastic band on their wrist.
  • Use a red pen and draw on their arms.
  • Do some sports or something that exerts energy.


Top tips for parents and carers

Talking about self-harm with your child can feel like a very scary and emotive subject. It is totally normal to feel this way. Some general tips to help you broach the subject with your child include:

  • Having a general conversation about how they are feeling and what’s on their mind. Don’t bring self-harm up straight away.
  • Having the conversation whilst doing something else, for example, going for a walk, drive in the car.
  • Being prepared to listen – don’t feel like you must have all the answers.
  • Suggesting they speak to someone else if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, for example, another family member or friend.
  • Supporting them to think through their problems and providing alternatives to self-harm.

Most importantly, let them know you aren’t judging them and that you love and care for them.


National and local support services


Self-harm resources


Where can I get local advice and support?

If you are concerned that your child/young person may be self-harming and you’d like help or advice, please contact the specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) team in your area:

Hampshire CAMHS

Single Point of Access (SPA)

Telephone: 0300 304 0050

Also see the CAMHS parents and carers guide on Crisis, Self-Harm and Suicide.


Isle of Wight CCAMHS

Free confidential mental health support and advice.

Telephone: 01983 523 602

Monday to Friday 9:00am to 4:30pm.


In an emergency call 111 for dedicated metal health support 24/7.