Understanding Why Young People Self Harm

Self-harm is more common than we would like and can significantly impact a young person's physical and mental health. There are many reasons why someone self-harms, but it's often a way of coping with difficult emotions.

Self-harm is when people intentionally hurt themselves as a way of coping with painful or strong emotions. It's a way of trying to get control over the feelings or relief from them.

It has been a challenging two years for all of us, but especially for children & young people who have not had the opportunities, we may have hoped to develop their social and emotional skills. In and of itself, it is not a reason to self-harm or is it to suggest that it wasn't occurring in young people before covid.

Consider this. When lots of distressing feelings build-up, it can become overwhelming. At the moment, the sensation of self-harming and experiencing some sort of physical pain can feel more accessible than feeling emotionally out of control.

Many young people often report that they self harm to try to manage intense emotional pain. Many feel overwhelmed by complicated feelings, thoughts or memories. It can seem like there's no other way to deal with what's happening or express what they're feeling for some young people. Self-harm might give relief for a moment, but it doesn't help fix the problem. However, with the right help, people can learn more effective ways to cope.

How It Happens

Self-harm happens in different ways, some more obvious and severe than others. Forms of self-harm include:

  • Cutting, scratching, carving, branding or marking the body
  • Picking at scabs so they don't heal
  • Pulling hair
  • Burning or grazing yourself
  • Biting, bruising or hitting yourself
  • Ingesting something dangerous
  • Hitting a part of your body on something hard
  • Digital self-harm or self-cyberbullying

Some young people deal with strong emotions in less obvious but still severe ways. These include binge drinking, taking a lot of drugs, having unsafe sex or starving themselves.

Reasons Young People Have Given for Hurting Themselves

  • To try and express complicated or hidden feelings
  • To feel in control
  • To get an immediate sense of relief
  • To communicate that they need some support
  • To prove to themselves that they're not invisible

It's important to remember that self-harm isn't just 'attention seeking', although some people might do it as a way of letting others know they aren't coping. It might be because they don't know any other form of telling people or because they're worried that others won't take how they're feeling seriously.

Despite what many people think, a young person doesn't usually self-harm because they want to die or have suicidal thoughts.


Some myths you might hear about self-harm can make it harder to talk about as a parent. While it might feel hard to understand sometimes from outside, self-harm can be a way young person to:

  • Manage, reduce or express powerful and upsetting emotions – such as hurt, sadness, anger, fear, or feeling bad about themselves.
  • Relieve tension and pressure, reduce feelings of panic and anxiety and temporarily feel calmer
  • Experience a feeling of physical pain to distract from emotional pain
  • Gain a sense of control over emotions and problems – for example, by feeling there is something they can do when things get too much
  • Stop feeling numb or "zoned out" – which can be a protection mechanism our bodies use when we're experiencing overwhelming feelings.

However, while it often feels like self-harm brings some relief at the moment, this is only temporary. Feelings build up again, so does the urge to self-harm. As this cycle continues over time, a young person may start to feel ashamed, confused or frightened about the fact that they are self-harming – increasing the load they're carrying on top of what they're already going through.

How to Help a Young Person Who Self Harms

The best way to help someone is to:

  • Listen to them
  • Give them support
  • Encourage them to connect with professional help and offer to help them achieve this
  • Be as open as you can and try to make them feel safe to discuss their feelings.
  • Remain calm – they might be feeling ashamed of what they've done and worry about your judgements.
  • Don't try to make ultimatums or force the person to stop – this could make things worse.
  • Ask them directly if they're considering suicide. If you think they are, call your local hospital or mental health service.
  • Call 000 or take the person to the local hospital's emergency department if they need urgent medical attention.

Supporting someone who self-harms can be a stressful experience. Think about if it would be helpful to get some advice or support for yourself.

Helping Ride The Wave of Distress

When the urge to self-harm does build at the moment, having a list of other things to do straight away can also help your young person "ride the wave" of these intense feelings. Remember to validate their distress and not dismiss it, and that different things work for different people at other times. What can help usually depends upon the feelings they are trying to manage. Some young people will want to do something soothing like wrapping themselves up in a comfy space, while others might want to do something very active to burn off the energy in their bodies.

Short Term Strategies could include:

  • Making and using a self soothe box
  • Writing down how they're feeling in a journal
  • Writing down complicated feelings on pieces of paper and then ripping them up
  • Ripping up a magazine or newspaper
  • Hitting a soft cushion, pillow or bean bag
  • Listening to loud music
  • Having a shower
  • Doing some exercise
  • Going for a walk outside or taking the dog for a walk
  • Focusing on their breathing – how it feels in their body to breathe in and out
  • Wrapping up in a blanket or duvet
  • Talking to someone – a friend, family member or calling a helpline
  • Tidying or organising something
  • Doing a hobby, they enjoy that helps them feel calm, such as painting, drawing, colouring-in, watching a favourite TV programme, playing video games, cooking or baking
  • Using an APP such as CALM HARM

Longer-Term Strategies

  • Try to open up a conversation about what's going on
  • Keep communication as open as you can, letting your child know they can talk to you at any time
  • Stay calm & non-judgemental, don't make assumptions
  • Help them notice when the urge to self-harm builds and how they feel when that happens
  • Help them to do daily things that support their wellbeing
  • Ask your child if there are things that would help them to feel safer
  • Seek professional help for them & yourself if needed

If your child is self-harming, it is essential to step in early and encourage them to get professional support. With this support, your child can learn positive ways of handling strong feelings. It can help break the self-harm cycle and prevent future self-harming.

If this article has raised any issues or concerns about your child, please reach out. We are here to support you and them.

Acknowledgements & further resources

Director of Counselling