If you’re concerned about your child harming themselves, there are ways you can help.

Self-harming behaviors in children and teens may be a scary thought for parents and loved ones.

The emotional distress that comes with some of the age-related changes and situations in adolescence may lead some children to have a variety of unpredictable responses, including self-harm.

There are a few ways adults can identify these behaviors and provide support when needed. With this support, your child can find other ways to cope with their hurts and emotional needs.

Self-harm may include a spectrum of behaviors that can be difficult to define. In the most general sense, it’s a coping mechanism that involves causing yourself physical pain.

Some children and teens may intentionally hurt themselves when they’re experiencing difficult emotions or looking for a form of emotional release.

Some behaviors considered self-harm include:

  • cutting (most common)
  • scratching
  • hitting themselves or banging their head against a wall
  • pulling out hair
  • biting, burning, or picking skin

These behaviors can be a one-time incident, or sometimes they can become repetitive and persistent.

While you may feel alarmed, know that your child may not be self-harming in order to end their life, says Melissa Zawisza, a licensed clinical social worker in Dallas, Texas.

“Oftentimes, children and teens have said they felt numb and want to feel anything. The urge to self-harm builds up, and then they feel relief when it’s over,” she explains.

Your child may feel ashamed of their self-harming behavior and work overtime to prevent you from finding out. Still, there may be hints to look out for.

Covert signs

  • recurrent bloody tissues or clothing
  • scars or wounds that don’t heal, or new scars and wounds without any cause
  • separated razors (from a pencil sharpener, for example)
  • internet search history about self-harm or suicide

Emotional signs

  • depressed mood
  • periods of excitability
  • irritability
  • desiring more time alone than usual
  • seeming less interested in usual hobbies
  • changes to their sleep pattern

Behavioral signs

  • decreased academic performance
  • avoiding activities that show skin, like swimming
  • making excuses for mystery cuts, bruises, burns, or marks
  • hiding marks on arms and legs with layers of clothing
  • keeping a stash of sharp objects (glass, razors, nails, pins)
  • locking themselves in the bathroom for long periods of time
  • interest in risk-taking activities

These signs on their own can point to many situations, not necessarily self-harm.

In some instances, says Zawisza, self-harm comes after the child has experienced a traumatic event, such as:

  • abuse or neglect
  • family dysfunction
  • divorce
  • death of a loved one
  • witnessing or experiencing a crime

“There may be substance use or domestic violence in the home,” she adds.

Not every child has the same emotional resources to handle challenges. So, what may cause one child to harm themselves may be different from what leads another one to exhibit this behavior.

Other common causes of self-harm in children may include:

  • bullying at school
  • cyberbullying
  • difficulty with emotional regulation
  • low distress tolerance
  • persistent pressure to perform

There may also be an underlying mental health condition. Self-harm is not a typical symptom on its own but could be a feature of:

All of these conditions are manageable, and a mental health professional can offer the support your child may need.

It’s natural to feel scared, concerned, and upset if you find out or believe your child is hurting. No matter how things feel right now, it’s important to know that you can get through this with your child.

These tips may help you navigate this situation in a healing way:

Regain your composure

You may feel a range of emotions, which is completely understandable. You love your child and don’t want them to feel hurt.

Perhaps you hope that if they see how angry, shocked, or hurt you are, they’ll stop.

But you may find it more helpful to gain control over your emotions before you approach them about the self-harm, says Zawisza.

You can do this on your own or with the help of a trusted professional.

Consider these steps to handle your emotions before talking with your child:

Plan an intervention

When you’re ready to talk with your child, a few strategies may help. You can:

  • Approach them with an open mind.
  • Avoid criticizing, blaming, or judging them.
  • Seek to understand the underlying cause.
  • Let them know that it’s okay to have big feelings.
  • Reassure them that you know childhood/adolescence may feel hard at times.

“Talk to your child and express empathy and a willingness to learn about how they got started and how often it happens,” says Zawisza.

It may help to remember these behaviors can signal that something is going on with your child. This isn‘t something they’re doing to you. Your patience and understanding will go a long way.

Get them support

Since self-harm is a sign of emotional distress or an underlying mental health condition, it’s a good idea to work with a professional of some kind.

If your child is open to it, individual counseling may be a great place to start.

For working on self-harm, NAMI recommends:

There may be things they need to talk about that they may not feel comfortable telling you. It’s a good idea to remind them that this is OK and you won’t be upset if they confide in someone else.

Along with individual therapy, you may find it helpful to engage in family therapy, group therapy, or youth support groups.

In some cases, a doctor or psychiatrist may recommend the use of medication to treat an underlying condition that could be behind self-harming behaviors.

This is done within a treatment plan, and not every child will need it.

Some medications a health professional may recommend include:

Hospitalization

Research shows that children who self-harm may have an increased chance of contemplating suicide.

In these cases, a hospitalization program may be a good option. Once there, they will work with a treatment team for a diagnosis, therapy, and planning for outpatient treatment.

Not every child or every case is the same. Only a mental health professional can present you with all the options that could work in your situation.

Self-harming behavior may come up for some children, particularly teenagers.

While your child may not want to cause serious self-injury, these behaviors must still be taken seriously. A therapist can help you discover the underlying causes as well as the best support steps for your child.

To keep learning about self-harm, Zawisza recommends reading “Healing Self-Injury: A Compassionate Guide for Parents and Other Loved Ones” by Dr. Janis Whitlock and Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson.

Even though it may be scary for you at this time, it’s possible to support your child and help them develop healthier coping mechanisms.

If you need support during these times, consider the following resources: