This article was contributed by selfharmUK

selfharmUK is an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of young people affected by self-harm, as well as providing training, information, resources and advice to teachers, parents, youth workers and other professionals. 

Main content

Self-harm: what parents should know


Image: R.Nial Bradshaw

Rachel Welch, founder of Free from Harm and former director of SelfharmUK offers advice on this difficult and upsetting subject

At its simplest, self-harm is a physical response to an emotional pain. Sometimes when emotional difficulties or stresses become unbearable, a physical pain can seem preferable; it helps to blot out the what’s happening and provides another focus. Self-harm can also be a way of feeling cared for. When it’s too hard to ask for help for what’s going on emotionally, people can sometimes foster a sense of being ‘looked after’ through physical injury instead. Self-harm is a wide umbrella term that may include other issues such as eating disorders, alcoholism and drug abuse.

People will self-harm for all manner of reasons, but all will relate to a difficult emotion or underlying distress of some kind. Typically, self-harm will often be in response to feelings of anger, low self-esteem or a need to feel in control, but this list is by no means exhaustive and the only way to really know what’s going on for someone is to ask them.

‘We’re making it easier for people to ask for help’

There is a perception that self-harm has increased significantly in recent years. It’s very hard to know for sure how big the increase is as self-harm is incredibly hard to measure – different studies look at different things and we can really only count the people who make disclosures or ask for help. The other way of looking at the supposed increase is in terms of how society is changing – we’re making it easier for people to ask for help so as a result we may be seeing more disclosures from people who a few years ago would’ve suffered in silence. An increase in numbers isn’t always a bad thing.

Listen first and act second

Treatment will vary from person to person and not everyone will need hospital or statutory services. One model doesn’t fit all, so whereas someone may benefit greatly from mental health services someone else may do just as well from a friendly listening ear. Self-harm is complex, and so are the people affected, so where possible try and be led by what they feel they need. Listen first and act second.

The best thing parents can do sometimes is to take a step back. Your child needs to know they are loved and supported. They don’t need you to understand, they don’t always need you to fix anything and they especially don’t need to know how this affects you. Take a deep breath, listen, don’t panic and find some personal support outside the family home where you can express how you really feel.

Don’t let self-harm rob you of the fun times as a family; still do the enjoyable things, still foster a sense of ambition, hope and adventure in your child. However hard it feels, don’t let self-harm be the most significant part of daily life – your child is more than one behaviour and being reminded of that will help more than you will ever know.

Further reading

Self-harm: facts for parents

A Parent's Guide to Self-harm. 

Alumina is a free 6-week online programme for 14-18-year-olds. Find out more.

Freedom from Harm has a wide range of helpful resources and also offer training around the UK.  

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Related articles

Explore further

  • Health and wellbeing

    Self-harm: facts for parents

    What do you do when you discover your child is self-harming? Consultant psychiatrist Dr Andrew Hill-Smith offers advice on how you can help your child