Adolescent self harm and their secret suffering: taking the next steps.

Adolescent self harm

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. 

Things which 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  • Becoming withdrawn and isolated 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 


Reasons for self-harm 


A person may self-harm to help them cope with negative feelings and difficult experiences, to feel more in control, or to punish themselves. It can be a way of relieving overwhelming feelings that build up inside, to: 

  • reduce tension 
  • manage extreme emotional upset 
  • provide a feeling of physical pain to distract from emotional pain 
  • express emotions such as hurt, anger or frustration 
  • regain control over feelings or problems 
  • punish themselves or others 


The feelings or experiences that might be connected to self-harm include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, gender identity, sexuality, abuse, school problems, bullying, social media pressure, family or friendship troubles and bereavement. 


Actions to help when you know that someone is self harming 

It can be difficult to know what to do or how to react if you find out your child is self-harming. Here are some things that can really help:  

  • Avoid asking your child lots of questions all at once. 
  • Keep an eye on your child but avoid ‘policing’ them because this can increase their distress and lack of control and add to the risk of self-harming.  
  • Consider whether your child is self-harming in areas that can’t be seen. 
  • Remember that self-harm is a coping mechanism. It is a symptom of an underlying problem. 
  • Keep open communication between you and your child and remember they may feel ashamed of their self-harm and find it very difficult to talk about. Here are some ways you could start the conversation: 
  • Talk to your child but try not to get into a hostile confrontation. 
  • Keep firm boundaries and don’t be afraid of disciplining your child. It is helpful to keep a sense of normality and this will help your child feel secure and emotionally stable. 
  • If you feel confident, you can ask whether removing whatever they are using to self-harm is likely to cause them use something less sanitary to self-harm with, or whether it reduces temptation. This can be a difficult question to ask and if you are not confident to ask this seek professional advice. 
  • Identifying stressors and triggers; Talk through a typical day or upcoming events with your child. Identify situations that are worrying them and discuss how to best address these. 

Keep supporting; As things get better and scars heal, we might begin to drift away. Try not to, this early recovery phase is sometimes the hardest part of all. 

Helping your child learn about alternatives; Work with your child to identify different ways of dealing with difficult emotions such as breathing exercises, music, physical activity, writing or art. 

Set aside time to let your hair down with your child, remember to enjoy each other’s company and have positive shared attention, you both deserve some fun together. 

Seek professional help. Your child may need a risk assessment from a qualified mental health professional. Talk to your GP and explore whether your child can be referred to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). 

Discovering and responding to self-harm can be a traumatic experience – it’s crucial that you seek support for yourself.  It’s natural to feel guilt, shame, anger, sadness, frustration and despair – but it’s not your fault. 



Helplines and services available: 


YoungMinds Crisis Messenger 

Provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK if you are experiencing a mental health crisis 

If you need urgent help text YM to 85258 

All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors 

Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus. 



If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, email, or chat online about any problem big or small 

Freephone 24h helpline: 0800 1111 

Sign up for a childline account on the website to be able to message a counsellor anytime without using your email address 

Chat 1:1 with an online advisor 


The Mix 

If you’re under 25 you can talk to The Mix for free on the phone, by email or on their webchat. You can also use their phone counselling service, or get more information on support services you might need.  

Freephone: 0808 808 4994 (13:00-23:00 daily) 


YoungMinds Parents Helpline 

Call us for free 0808 802 5544 (Mon-Fri 9:30 – 16:00). 



Information, blogs and resources for people who self-harm and their families 

Email support: 


Youth Wellbeing Directory 

Lists of local services for young people’s mental health and wellbeing. 


Youth Access 

Offers information about advice and counselling services in the UK for young people aged 12-25 years 

Website with support for young people who self harm. 

Forum for parents 


CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) 

Offers support to young men in the UK who are down or in a crisis. CALM is dedicated to preventing male suicide, the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 

Helpline: 0800 58 58 58 (Daily 17:00-midnight) 




If you’re in distress and need support, you can ring Samaritans for free at any time of the day or night. 

Freephone (UK and Republic of Ireland): 116 123 (24 hours) 



 By Karen Richards