Understanding Self-Harm in Adolescents

Adolescent self-harm and their secret suffering

The Children’s Society conducted a survey of 11,000 14 year olds in the UK. They were collecting self-harm statistics from the subject group and included them in the charity’s annual Good Childhood Report, which examines the state of childrens’ wellbeing in the UK.  The survey found that 22% of the girls and 9% of the boys responding said they had hurt themselves on purpose in the year prior to the questionnaire. These figures equate to more than a fifth of 14-year-old girls in the UK having disclosed intentional acts of self-harm.

The definition of self-harm used within the group was: ‘when people hurt themselves as a way of dealing with difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences’. The physical actions include everything from punching or hitting to cutting or burning.

The Children’s Society report said gender stereotypes and worries about looks were contributing to unhappiness. Rates of self-harm were worst (46%) among those who were attracted to people of the same or both genders.

This report follows NHS data released this month that showed the number of admissions to hospital of girls aged 18 and under for self-harm had almost doubled in two decades, from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017.

It is deeply worrying that so many of our young people are emotionally suffering to the extent that they need to physically harm themselves as a release or distraction from their psychological distress.

This suffering is often felt to be shameful and kept secret, resulting in pushing others away and isolating the individual. These damaging behaviours can quickly become compulsions without developing more healthy ways of dealing with painful emotions.

What adults can do to help a child who is self-harming

  • Show you understand
  • Really listen to what they are expressing
  • Discover the triggers
  • Build their confidence
  • Show you trust them
  • Choose who you tell carefully
  • Help them find new ways to cope

How to spot warning signs

Look for physical signs such as cuts, bruises, burns and bald patches from pulling out hair. These are commonly on the head, wrists, arms, stomach, thighs and chest.

The emotional signs

  • Depression
  • Tearfulness and low motivation
  • Becoming withdrawn and isolated
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Low self-esteem and self-blame
  • Drinking or taking drugs

To those struggling, please talk to people you can trust – professional help can unlock this cycle.


By Karen Richards