Self Harm in Children and Adolescents

Discovering that your child or teenager is intentionally harming themselves is an incredibly distressing situation for any parent. It's not always clear how best to help them during this challenging time. We understand the difficulties you may be facing, and we are here to offer support and assistance.

Understanding Self-Harm

Self-harm refers to intentional behaviors that cause harm to oneself, which can include self-poisoning or self-injury. While self-harm itself is not a diagnosis, it often indicates an underlying mental health condition that requires identification and treatment. Self-injury is the most common form of self-harm.

In recent years, there has been increasing awareness of self-harm rates among children and teenagers. Shockingly, even children as young as 3 or 4 have been recorded as intentionally harming themselves, though the peak age for self-harm onset is during the teenage years.

Signs of Self-Harm in Children and Teenagers

Parents often discover their child's self-harm inadvertently, such as noticing scars or other evidence of harm or being informed by a teacher. Children often choose not to disclose their self-harm to their parents out of fear of punishment, misunderstanding, or causing upset.

There are various forms of self-harm, and it's important to take all of them equally seriously. It's not uncommon for a child or teenager to switch between different forms of self-harm or for the severity of harm to escalate over time.

Types of self-harm include:

  • Cutting
  • Poisoning (e.g., taking excessive painkillers)
  • Burning
  • Bruising (e.g., head banging or punching objects)
  • Scratching
  • Hair pulling
  • Biting

There are significant physical risks associated with self-harm, such as infections, muscle or ligament damage, long-term scarring, and potential organ damage if drugs or alcohol are involved. In some cases, self-harm can lead to accidental fatality, even if unintended.

Causes of Self-Harm

Contrary to popular belief, self-harm is rarely a cry for help or attention-seeking behavior. Instead, it often indicates the development of a serious underlying mental health condition.

Some reasons why children and adolescents might engage in self-harm include:

  • Emotional regulation: Self-harm can be a way for individuals to manage intense emotions, especially if they struggle to express or identify their feelings. Many report experiencing a sense of calm and release following self-harm episodes.
  • Hormonal changes: Self-harm could be influenced by the hormonal changes that occur during puberty. Research has explored the role of hormones in the development of common mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. While hormonal changes alone are unlikely to be the sole cause of self-harm, they may increase susceptibility.
  • Other factors: Bullying, academic or sports-related pressure, abuse or trauma, grief and bereavement, mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety, bulimia), and difficulties in school or home relationships can contribute to self-harm.

Self-Harm and Social Media

The role of social media in the prevalence of self-harm has been extensively debated in recent years. The pervasive nature of social media and the constant comparisons it fosters can contribute to unhappiness and discontent among children and teenagers. Reports indicate that the number of children unhappy with their appearance has increased significantly since the rise of social media.

Furthermore, exposure to content on social media that encourages or normalizes self-harm as a response to stress is a concern.

Seeking Help and Treatment for Self-Harm

Discovering that your child or teenager is self-harming can leave you feeling unsure about what to do next. It's common and natural to feel panicked in such situations.

We strongly recommend seeking professional help and expert support for your child or teenager as soon as possible. Accessing high-quality care early on is often easier and has been shown to prevent a deterioration in their condition. Children placed on waiting lists for treatment often experience worsening symptoms.


An essential step for families is to seek a comprehensive assessment by a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. This assessment helps identify any underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Children and teenagers who self-harm are highly likely to have underlying issues that would benefit from evaluation by a clinician experienced in complex mental health conditions.

Psychological Therapies

There is strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of various therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Adolescents (DBT-A), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Mentalization-Based Therapy for Adolescents (MBT-A), in reducing the risk of ongoing self-harm.

Parenting Support

Parenting support can be invaluable in teaching parents how to handle difficult situations in a way that supports their child's progress. It provides a safe space for parents to discuss their experiences and frustrations with a child behavioral expert. It can be challenging to discuss self-harm honestly with family and friends, as it can be shocking and parents may not yet feel ready to share.

If you believe your family would benefit from support, either individually or as a unit, please call us at 0333 3390115.

Remember, self-harm should be taken seriously, and seeking expert help is crucial for the well-being and recovery of your child or teenager.

To learn more about the different services we offer for children, please click on the links below: 

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

Child and Adolescent Psychology:

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy:

Autism in children and adolescents:

Autism assessments for children and young people:

ADHD in Children and Adolescents:

Behavioral issues in Children and Adolescents:

Self harm in Children and Adolescents:

Depression in Children and Adolescents:

Information for Parents:

Information for Schools:

Information for Healthcare Professionals:

Please contact our team for a free consultation. 

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