Self-harm (also known as self-injury) is when you inflict physical harm on yourself, usually in secret and often, without anyone else knowing.

Examples are cutting, burning, biting or hitting your body, pulling out hair or scratching and picking at sores on your skin.

Self-harm is not necessarily a suicide attempt. Engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. Most commonly, self-harm is a behaviour that is used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

People who deliberately harm themselves have often had tough experiences or difficult relationships in their lives. You may have:

  • been bullied or discriminated against
  • lost someone close to you, such as a parent, brother, sister or friend
  • broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • been physically or sexually abused
  • experienced a serious illness or disability that affects the way you feel about yourself
  • experienced problems with family, school or peer groups.

Self-harm may be used as a way to cope with the difficult emotions surrounding these experiences and :-

provide a way to express difficult or hidden feelings: It’s not uncommon to feel numb or empty as a result of overwhelming feelings you may be experiencing. Engaging in self-harm may provide a temporary sense of feeling again or a way to express anger, sadness, grief or hurt.

be a way of communicating to people that you need some support: When you feel unable to use words, engaging in self-harm can be a way of proving to yourself that you’re not invisible.

provide you with a feeling of control: You might feel that self-harm is one way you can have a sense of control over your life, feelings, or body, especially if you feel as if other things in your life are out of control.

Self-harm will only bring an immediate sense of relief, but it is only a temporary and can cause permanent scarring and damage to your body.

Psychologically, it may be associated with a sense of guilt,

Starting the conversation

If you are having difficulty speaking about what you’re going through, try to start sentences such as ‘Right now, I’m feeling…’, ‘I think it started when…’, ‘I’ve been feeling this for…’, ‘My sleep has been…’, ‘Lately school/work/college has been…’.

It may be necessary to talk to someone like a counsellor to help you to work through some of the reasons why you are harming yourself and to find alternative strategies for alleviating the pain you feel inside.

Like any relationship, building trust with your counsellor can take time and you need to find someone you feel comfortable with.

What can Parents or Carers Do ?

Your immediate instinct is of course, to protect your child, however responding calmly and with care, even if you do not fully understand is very helpful. Supporting your young person to explore alternative coping strategies to manage emotional distress, in a counselling relationship is also an  alternative. Self -harming may be a way of self-soothing, so understanding that self-harm and the threat of suicide are two different things also helps parents/carers remain calm. Self-harming may be just a way of coping with the world and lessening emotional pain through the release of the brain’s endorphins.

What can really help as a parent is to show your young person that you care (“I noticed the scars on your arms. I am worried about you and interested in knowing more about them if you would feel comfortable in telling me?”).

Try to explore with your young person the reason behind the self-harm and any triggers. Most of all, slowly build trust rather than being confrontational. In this way you have a better chance of encouraging them to seek the professional help they really need.