What is the cause of self-harm?

Self-harm is often understood to be a physical response to an emotional pain of some kind and can be very addictive. Some of the things people do are quite well known, such as cutting, burning or pinching, but there are many ways to hurt yourself, including abusing drugs and alcohol or through an eating disorder.

People who self-harm often say it provides short-term relief to emotional pain. Even though they’re aware of the potential damage they may cause, they can find it hard to stop as a result.


of 11-14 year olds have self-harmed themselves or know someone who has ¹


of parents would not seek professional help if their child was self-harming ²


increase in 10-14 year-olds attending A&E for self-harm related reasons over the preceding two ³

What can lead young people to self-harm?

There are many reasons why young people may start to self-harm. Family reasons, such as not getting on with other family members or their parents getting divorced, may be the trigger. They may have personal problems to do with sexuality, race, culture or religion, or they may suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of isolation. Bereavement, current or previous experience of abuse in childhood or stress as a result of bulling or impending exams can all lead to self-harm.

Spotting the signs

There are two types of self-harm: physical and emotional, and young people will go to great lengths to hide them or explain them away.

The signs to look for with physical self-harm are cuts, bruises, burns and bald patches from hair pulling. Young people are likely to cover themselves up in long-sleeved clothes and hats to hide the signs.

The signs of emotional self-harm are a lot more difficult to spot – and it shouldn’t be assumed that a young person is self-harming purely on this basis. If you spot these in addition to the physical signs there may be cause for concern. The emotional signs include: depression, tearfulness and low motivation, unusual eating habits, sudden weight loss or gain, low self-esteem and drinking or taking drugs.

Self-harm can start at a very young age, i.e. seven years old or more commonly between the ages of 12 and 15 years old.

Experts say self-harm behaviour normally end within five years of starting, however, for some, it can last into adulthood.

Challenging preconceptions about self-harm

Self-harm and online activities

The internet offers your children the opportunity to learn, be creative, socialise and have fun. However, the increase in awareness of self-harm generally has seen a corresponding rise in the number of sites covering the issue – both positive and negative.

Cyberbullying and other forms of online abuse can drive young people to self-harm, whilst pro-self-harm websites or communities that spread knowledge of self-harming techniques can encourage experimentation. There are however a number of excellent sites that discourage this and offer advice, guidance and knowledge to help parents and their children deal with this issue.

If you discover your child is involved in self-harm, then it’s important to stay calm and try to talk openly to them about it. Here are some tips to help your conversation and how to broach the topic:

Find out why

Talk together to try and understand what makes your child start to self-harm. Self-harm is usually a response to something else that is going on in a person’s life. You can work together to address the causes.

Try to avoid taking control

Many people who self-harm feel it is an important way of having some control over their lives. Try to not to take it personally if your son or daughter cannot talk to you because you are too close.

Be honest yourself

It’s not unusual to feel hurt, devastated, shocked, angry, sad, frightened, guilty, responsible, hopeless, or powerless. Consider seeing a counsellor or therapist for yourself if you are struggling to cope.

Build their confidence and show you trust them

Give your child space. Show you trust them and build their confidence by resisting the temptation to monitor them too closely. Try and strike a balance between maintaining an awareness of their activities and their right to privacy.

Avoid giving ultimatums

Ultimatums rarely work, and may well drive the behaviour underground, and you might not get any further chances to discuss the topic and really deal with it. Self-harm can be very addictive, and it is important that the decision to stop comes from the person who is self-harming.

Find out more

There are a growing number of books and websites that can help you understand self-harm. Giving yourself this knowledge will help you be understanding and supportive and show that you are making the effort to understand.

What should I do?

As a parent you can speak with your child’s school and your child’s GP. There are also a range of excellent information sources and helplines available for both parents and young people. If you are worried your child is putting their life at risk by self-harming, call 999 or take them to A&E if possible.

Explore the numerous resources available to parents in the section below.

Find out more

Parental controls usually include the option to prevent access to self-harm and suicide websites. The mobile operators use 18+ filtering as standard, this includes suicide and self-harm. Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr have also issued guidelines to help prevent posts that glorify or promote self-harm.

When you are out and about be aware that not all public wifi has filters applied.

It is worth bearing in mind that no controls are 100% guaranteed to block all unwanted content, but there are additional actions you can take, such as disabling the Google preview pane which will prevent unwanted images appearing when you search.

It should also be remembered that there are many websites set up to constructively discuss and help those affected by these issues. If you choose to set parental controls, there is a risk these sites may be filtered even though they are not promoting self-harm or suicide because of the images or content on the site. You can set your filters to allow access to these sites if you wish, or simply visit the websites in our recommended list.

Expert advice is focussed on building a trusting and supportive relationship, so do give some considered thought as to whether you wish to set parental controls.

Where can I go for more information?

Young Minds

Content designed for parents who may be worried that their child may be deliberately hurting.


Information resources on the subject that will help you understand the situation and help you deal with it. There are also resources to help your child.

A partnership between a charity called DIPEx and The Health Experiences Research Group or ‘HERG’ at The University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care. This page contains videos of parents’ experiences of self-harm and guidance on how to deal with the issues involved.

The Mental Health Foundation

A publication called ‘The Truth about Self-Harm’ for young people and their friends and families.

The Samaritans

The Samaritans has produced a lesson plan for teachers wanting to discuss self-harm with their students.


Information on understanding and dealing with self-harm.


Harmless is a user led organisation that provides a range of services about self harm including support, information, training and consultancy to people who self harm, their friends and families and professionals. This resources page has lots of downloadable content for you and your child.

Parent Info

Parent Info is a collaboration between CEOP and Parent Zone. It provides high quality information to parents and carers about their children’s wellbeing and resilience. Schools can host the content on their own website and use it in any other ways (in letters to parents etc) that they want.

Where can my child get help?

The Mix

A free, confidential helpline service for young people under 25 who need help, but don’t know where to turn. Phone 0808 808 4994 / Text 80849


Childline offers online and phone support for children: 0800 1111

The National Self-Harm Network

Crisis support, information and resources, advice, discussions and distractions.

  1. ChildLine, YouthNet, selfharmUK and YoungMinds Poll (Feb 2015)
  2. ‘Talking Self harm’ Young Minds and Cello group (October 2012)
  3. Health & Social Care Information Centre (2014)