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
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)
- 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.
Why might children self-harm?
In each case, the reason for self-harm is different, but there may be a physiological component. In other cases, it may be linked to the symptoms of a health condition.
Only a mental health professional can accurately explore and determine the causes of self-harming behavior in your child.
In some cases, self-injury can promote the release of feel-good transmitters, like endorphins, or the body’s own pain relievers, called endogenous opioids.
If your child is feeling low, self-harm may temporarily affect their mood, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
In time, they may associate self-harm with feeling better later.
Children who are in great distress may also harm themselves physically to distract themselves from their emotional pain. By causing an injury, all their attention is on it, and they may think this will offer temporary relief from their emotions.
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.
- 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
- depressed mood
- periods of excitability
- desiring more time alone than usual
- seeming less interested in usual hobbies
- changes to their sleep pattern
- 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.
Age can make a difference
Self-harm may look different depending on the age of your child. Older kids may have access to a wider range of tools than younger ones, says Zawisza.
For example, a 5-year-old may bang their head against the wall, while an 11-year-old may use a paper clip to cut their arms and legs.
A licensed mental health professional can help you determine if your child is showing signs of self-harm that’s consistent with their age group.
In some instances, says Zawisza, self-harm comes after the child has experienced a traumatic event, such as:
- abuse or neglect
- family dysfunction
- 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
- 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:
- anxiety disorders
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- eating disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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:
- Practice deep breathing exercises.
- Try journaling.
- Find a parent support group.
- Participate in self-care activities.
- Talk with a mental health professional.
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.
How to help your child in the moment
If you walk in while your child is in the process of self-harming, remain calm and say something like:
“I can see that you’re upset right now. I want you to know that you’re not in trouble, and I am here for you. Let’s talk about this calmly while I help you bandage up these cuts.”
If your child has serious injuries, it’s important to call 911 or to drive them to the nearest emergency room.
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:
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:
- Call a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
- Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- Call or text the Postpartum Support International Help Line at 800-944-4773 (#1 Español, #2 English)
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat online 24-7.
- Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24-7.
- Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
- DeafLEAD Crisis Line. Call 321-800-DEAF (3323) or text HAND at 839863.
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline DirectoryTrusted Source
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists