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Understanding self-harm and how to help

As a parent, it can be overwhelming to find out your child is self-harming. It can be difficult to understand. Numbers show there has been a steep rise in the number of young people needing specialist care for issues, such as suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Worse still, there remains a stigma around it, meaning young people keep it hidden away. Here we explore why young people turn to self-harm as a coping mechanism and how our services help them in these times of need.


Facts and figures


more children needed specialist treatment for severe mental health crisis in 2021


children were referred in England for issues, such as self-harm between April and October 2021

Reasons to self-harm

boy lies on bed in the dark looking at phone

Reasons to self-harm

Young people have to deal with a lot. They might be being bullied at school, grappling with their identity, have parents that are fighting, or be struggling in class. On top of this, the pandemic has left many feeling isolated and alone.  

Some turn to friends or family to talk about what they are going through. But some can’t. Others won’t. The pressure starts to build. And this can lead to them harming their bodies, as a way of coping. 

Most people tend to think of cutting as the only form of self-harm. But it can also be hitting, pulling hair out, even picking around fingernails. It is important for both adults and young people to recognise this. Otherwise, things can go unnoticed. 

Why do young people self-harm?

Tom works for our Checkpoint service. He is part of a pilot project aimed at reducing self-harm through a specialised type of therapy called Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT). Tom spoke to us about the reasons young people self-harm and unpacks some of the techniques he uses to support them. 

What is at the root of each person’s self-harm can be really different.

‘It's not an act toward ending a life, even though it increases risk. If anything, it is kind of life affirming. It is a way to try to do something about a situation.’ 

young girl looking direclty at viewer

This Christmas, children can't wait

As the nights draw in, children across the country will be waiting to see their loved ones, waiting for the joy of opening a stocking. But many of those who are suffering with anxiety or depression are simply waiting to be seen and heard. Your support can help provide a lifeline for young people by giving them access to our services and help us campaign.


Finding help

Finding a treatment that works

DBT is all about delving deeper. Looking at it from all angles. The young person takes note when they self-harm. They write down what they were feeling, and why. Over time they start to work out the chain of events that led to them self-harming. 

'We look at what made them vulnerable. Was it lack of sleep? Falling out with friends the day before? Not eating?’ 

Woman puts arm around teenage girl

Finding help for young people that self-harm

‘Then we look at what prompted this chain of events. It could have been an argument with one of the parents. Then we’ll zoom in on thoughts, feelings, physical sensations. What came first, the thought or the feeling?’ 

‘When we've got an idea of what the chain looks like for the young person, that's when we can look at a solution. Where are the places that we could have broken this chain?’  

We’re getting them to problem solve in every session.

Lending an ear 

Young people often feel shame in admitting they self-harm. They think they will be judged. They think they won’t be taken seriously. 

Jane, one of our well-being practitioners, stresses the role we can all play in making sure young people have a place where they can talk about it. Offering emotional support can be a big step in the right direction. 

‘Sometimes with self-harm they feel like they're not being heard, or at least not from an adult.’ 

‘I think it's listening. If it is a case of ‘I'm sorry I’m not an expert in this’, it becomes about signposting to the appropriate service or website. It is all about giving the basic support to help guide them.’ 

Author: Edward Herbert

Girl looks towards the camera with a serious expression


Workers like Tom and Jane support young people to find ways to cope with issues, such as stress, anxiety and depression. They help keep them safe and have hope and optimism for the future. Today you can help more young people overcome difficult times. You can help them move forward with their lives.


If you are worried that a young person you know is self-harming, you should reach out to them and let them know they can call Childline on 0800 1111, or sign up so you can online chat and send messages (9am - midnight)