Practical tips for parents of children who self-harm

One third of 15-year-old girls and 11% of 15-year-old boys report self-harming. In recognition of Self-Injury Awareness Day, we have compiled some practical tips to help parents/ carers support young people who may be self-harming.

1. Focus on understanding the feelings driving the self-harm behaviour

All behaviours are driven by feelings, and self-harm is your child’s way of managing and expressing difficult feelings, including anger, sadness, loneliness or a lack of control over their lives.

Sometimes self-harm may be triggered by a particularly difficult experience, such as bullying, whereas in other cases it may be due to ongoing depression or low self-worth. Self-harm can sometimes become the default way for people to express their feelings.

Many parents respond by focusing on the self-harming behaviour. They may respond by take steps to prevent their child from self-harming, such as encouraging them to stop, monitoring their behaviour or ensuring they’re not left unsupervised.

Although done with the best intentions, this approach can cause tension in the parent-child relationship and escalate the self-harming behaviour.

It is important to encourage open communication around the feelings and triggers surrounding the self-harming behaviour, and to respond with empathy and understanding.

It is important that your child knows that you are approaching the situation from a position of concern. Responding to any self-harm injuries with care and empathy, rather than anger or judgement, can encourage open communication and maintain a positive relationship.

“Oh Amy, your arm looks really sore. Come on, let’s get you a bandage. Have you had a difficult day?”

It may often take a while for your child to open up, so be patient and ensure that your child knows you are there to listen if they want to talk. Sometimes your child may not be able to express how they are feeling.

It can be helpful for your child to have a signal if they are finding things difficult. This could be sending you a blank text message or leaving a particular item somewhere.

2. Accept that you can’t control your child’s behaviour

It can be incredibly difficult for parents to know that their child is hurting themselves and not be able to stop or protect them.

A key first step is to accept that you can’t control your child’s behaviour, however much you’d like to.

You can, however, support your child to make healthy behaviour choices by talking to them about alternative ways to manage difficult feelings, including their urges to self-harm. This will give your child a sense of ownership of their actions and help them recognise that they can make different choices.

Acknowledge that it can be difficult to change our habits and encourage your child to talk through other more healthy strategies that they feel might help.

Possible alternatives could include doing something to distracting themselves, using a punch back to get their frustrations out, or drawing on themselves or using lotion to create similar physical sensations.

It will take practice to break the habit, so don’t expect an immediate change. It may also take several attempts to find a strategy that works for your child so be patient!

3. Talk to your child about the safety risks of self-harming

It is important that your child is aware of the safety risks of their self-harming behaviour and how to minimise these.

Linked to the point above, you can’t control your child’s behaviour but if they are going to self-harm, you can try to ensure they are as safe as possible.

Making sure they have access to First Aid supplies (e.g. bandages, antiseptic cream, a cold compress for burns) and that they know who to contact if they need medical treatment etc. can all help to minimise the risks associated with self-harm injuries.

You can also minimise the risks by limiting access to pills, sharp implements, cigarette lighters etc.

4. Encourage your child to seek professional support

There is a variety of support available, both for young people who are self-harming and for parents.

Speaking to your child’s GP is often a good first step. They will be able to refer your child to specialist support and may be able to signpost you to any support for parents that is available in your area.

Additionally, it may be helpful to speak to your child’s school to ensure there is support for your child during the school day. There may be a school counsellor that your child can speak to.

It is always best to seek professional support with your child’s consent and involvement, where possible.

Sometimes your child may not feel ready or want to seek professional help. In this case, Childline and NSPCC both have helplines for children and young people (numbers listed below). Your child will be able to speak anonymously to a trained counsellor which can help overcome the difficult first barrier of seeking help.

Young Minds have a helpline for parents (number listed below) which may be helpful for you to discuss your concerns and talk through the best steps to ensure your child gets the right support.

5. Remember that your child still needs clear, appropriate boundaries

Many parents report that they feel anxious setting and enforcing boundaries in case it upsets or angers their child and triggers an episode of self-harm. This can lead to parents feeling powerless and being overly indulgent with their child.

Conversely, in a bid to stop their child from self-harming, many parents can set more restrictive boundaries, for example, checking the child’s body for signs of self-harm, not allowing them to shut their bedroom door etc.

Your child still needs clear and consistent boundaries as this will help them to feel safe. At the same time, these boundaries need to be appropriate to the child’s age and current needs, as well as respecting their rights to privacy.

Try to set and enforce boundaries in a calm, firm manner, while acknowledging your child’s needs:

“I don’t think it’s an option for you to go to the party. I completely understand that you want to go and you will feel you’re missing out if your friends are going. However, it’s a school night and you have important exams coming up. I know that’s a hard thing for you to hear and that your friends are important to you. How about we think of an alternative – do you want to invite your friends over at the weekend?”

6. Take time to nurture all relationships within the family

One child self-harming will impact on the whole family, and can be particularly difficult for siblings. It can also lead to increased conflict in the relationship between parents/ with partners. It is important to remember everyone’s needs and take time to nurture all relationships, both on an individual level, and by spending quality time together as a family.*

7. Take time to look after your own wellbeing and seek support for you if necessary

Supporting a child who is self-harming is challenging and can result in parents losing confidence in their parenting ability. It is common for parents to feel angry at their child, often stemming from anxiety or feeling powerless to help or stop the self-harming behaviour.

Taking time to look after yourself, and seeking support when necessary, is really important in helping you cope. If you are looking after your own needs, it will be much easier to be calm, warm and empathic when you respond to your child.

Useful numbers

  • NSPCC helpline: 0808 800 5000

  • Childline helpline: 0800 1111

  • Young Minds Parents Helpline: 0808 8025544

Useful websites

Jessica Tanner

Research Lead

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