Health & Science

What parents need to know about self harm—and how to talk to kids about it

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How much do you really know about the warning signs of and reasons behind self-harm?

It might seem like it couldn’t happen in your family, but it’s more common than you might think. 17 percent of teens admit to harming themselves, and the numbers are likely much higher because so few kids seek help. Even if your child isn’t doing it, they might be worried about friends who do, or face pressure from peers to try it.

Talking to your child about self harm—whether you suspect they’re at risk or not—will help ensure they know they can come to you with sensitive topics. It also gives you the opportunity to teach them coping skills for handling emotions in a healthy way.

Important note: Self-harm is NOT the same as a suicide attempt, but suicide risk generally increases with the severity and frequency of self harm.

Cutting is the most well-known type of self harm, but it can also look like burning or biting, hitting body parts on hard surfaces, pulling hair out, picking at skin, or other self-inflicted injuries.

And of course if you have concerns about your child’s mental health, reach out to a specialist like a school counselor, therapist, or their pediatrician right away.

Reasons a child might self-harm

  • Release an unwanted feeling
  • Distract from emotional pain
  • Gain a sense of control
  • Punish themselves for things they think they did wrong
  • Stop feeling numb
  • Communicate a need for help (though many who self harm are very secretive about it)

Signs a child might be self-harming

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or pants in warm weather
  • Suspicious-looking scars, bruises, or bite marks
  • Wounds that don’t heal
  • Cuts on the same place
  • Bloody tissues in the trash can
  • Wearing a lot of band aids
  • Refusing to go into the locker room or change clothes in school

What to say to your child about self harm

It can be hard to understand why someone would want to hurt themselves, but if you’ve ever been so upset that you wanted to slam your hand on a desk, scream, or kick something really hard, it’s been described a bit like that—a surge of emotions that finds release in an action.

Whether you suspect your child is intentionally hurting themselves or not, this is NOT a conversation you want to skip! Even if your child isn’t using self harm as a way to deal with intense emotions or trauma, they might be worried about friends who do, or face pressure from peers to try it.

While some parents feel like bringing these topics up only serves to “plant ideas” in their kid’s head, the fact is that just isn’t true. Opening this line of communication lets your child know that they can come to you for support no matter what, and gives you the chance to introduce healthy ways of coping with emotions.

Start by asking your child:

“Have you ever heard of self harm? That’s when someone hurts themselves on purpose, usually to release emotional pain they feel inside, ‘punish’ themselves for something they feel they did wrong, or to just feel *something* when they’re feeling numb.”

“Have you ever felt like that, or have any of your friends talked about it?”

Talk about what it is

“Self harm could be someone cutting or scratching themselves with something sharp, but it can be really any kind of intentional injury—like pulling hair out, biting themselves, or banging body parts on hard surfaces.”

“I also just learned about digital self-harm, when kids create online identities on social media sites and post cruel comments about themselves.”

Reassure, reassure, reassure

“Strong emotions are normal, but they’re also hard to have.”

“Self harm, unfortunately, is pretty common, but it’s also not a healthy way to deal with the strong emotions and social pressures that come along with being a teenager.”

“If you ever feel overwhelmed by your feelings, tempted to harm yourself, try self harm, or want to help a friend who’s struggling, please know you can ALWAYS come to me. I won’t judge, and I won’t be mad. I can just listen if that’s what you need, or we can find a solution together—there are lots of healthy ways to work through tough emotions, no matter how hopeless things feel. I’m here for you.”

If you suspect your child has been self harming…

Above all, be empathetic, calm, and quietly listen to whatever your child is willing to share. If they resist the conversation, keep trying.

  • “I noticed the scars on your arm. I hope it’s OK to say that. Can you tell me about the times when you hurt yourself?”
  • “I can see you’re really upset. You might be scared. Honestly, I’m scared too. We can work this out together.”
  • “Self harm can be related to intense pressure or painful experiences. Can you tell me about any difficult issues you’ve been facing?”

How to help

Help your child find healthy strategies to process difficult emotions, such as:

  • Get creative: Make art, doodle, or write down how you’re feeling
  • Release endorphins: Exercise, step outside, listen to music
  • Take a break: Shower, rip up a magazine, focus on breathing
  • Text support: Text HOME to 741741 to contact Crisis Support Line and talk to a real person for mental health support and crisis intervention
  • Counseling: A therapist can guide your child through challenges they need additional help with

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.