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Self-harm advice for parents worried about their child

Posted on Tuesday, 31 January 2023, in Child & Teen Anxiety, Treatments & Therapy

young child reading


Suspecting your child or teenager of intentionally harming themselves can be incredibly distressing for any parent, especially as it isn't always obvious how best to help them. While we understand the difficulties this can bring, please remember that support is available.

Self-harm, which includes self-poisoning and self-injury, is intentionally behaving in a way that causes harm to oneself. It's not a diagnosis in itself but often indicates that there may be another underlying mental health condition that needs identification and treatment. Self-injury is the most common method of self-harm.

In recent years, there has been a lot of reporting in the press about self-harm rates in children and teenagers. Shockingly, children as young as three or four have been recorded intentionally harming themselves, with the peak age for self-harm onset being during teenage years. Often, a child will self-harm for a period of time, stop, and then start again, making it hard for parents to know what to do, as it's common to think it is 'just a phase' that the child or teenager will grow out of. 

Signs of self-harm in children and teenagers

Signs of self-harm in children and teenagers can often be discovered by accident, such as seeing scars or evidence of harm or being informed by a teacher who has found out. Children and teenagers often won't choose to disclose their self-harm to their parents for fear of punishment, misunderstanding, or making their parents upset. There are several types of self-harm, and while some may seem more 'serious' than others, they all need to be taken equally seriously. Often, a child or teenager may move to a different form of harm, or the severity of the harm may increase.

Types of self-harm include cutting, poisoning, burning, bruising, scratching, hair pulling, and biting. There are obvious risks around the physical complications that can be caused by self-harm, such as the risk of infection, damage to muscles or ligaments, long-term scarring, and damage to organs if using drugs or alcohol to inflict harm. For some children, things can get drastically out of hand, and the self-harm can result in fatality, even if this was unintentional. 

What causes a child or teenager to self-harm?

The causes of self-harm are often misunderstood as a cry for help or attention-seeking behaviour. This is, in fact, rarely the case and is often a sign of a serious mental health condition developing. Some reasons that children and adolescents may self-harm include managing intense emotions, particularly if they don't know how to talk about them, changes during puberty, bullying, pressure to achieve at school or sports clubs, abuse or trauma, grief and bereavement, mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or bulimia, and relationship difficulties at school or home.

Self-harm and social media

The role of social media in the prevalence of self-harm has been debated in the press a lot in recent years. It's suggested that the pervasive nature of social media and the constant comparisons it can create lead to great unhappiness and discontent. Twice as many children reported being unhappy with their personal appearance in 2014 compared to 2008, a period accompanied by a large increase in the number of children who had a social media account. It is also suggested that through social media, children and teenagers can become exposed to content that encourages or normalises self-harm as a reaction to stressful events.

Treating self-harm

If you discover that your child or teenager is engaging in self-harm, it is important to remember that seeking professional help is the best action. Early intervention can significantly improve the chances of recovery for your child.

A comprehensive assessment from a child and adolescent psychiatrist will not only help rule out any other mental health conditions but can also provide a deeper understanding of the underlying issues contributing to self-harm.

Several psychological therapies are effective in reducing the risk of ongoing self-harm, such as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Before deciding on the most appropriate treatment, we highly recommend calling or messaging us if you have any concerns. A trained advisor can take the time to listen to your concerns before explaining your options and recommending the next steps.