Self-harm in children and teens: Overview

 

What is self-harm?

Self-harm can include cutting, burning or hitting oneself. Children and teens who self-harm may be trying to relieve emotional pain or suffering or create a physical wound to represent their emotional suffering.

If my child self-harms, does it mean they are suicidal?

No, self-harm is not always associated with suicidal thoughts.

What causes self-harming thoughts and behaviour?

Self-harming thoughts and behaviour can have a wide range of causes. These can include stressful life events and existing mental health conditions.

Stressful life events

Stressful events may lead a child or teen to feel overwhelmed or trapped in a situation. They might include, for example, a relationship break-up, conflict with family or friends, bullying (online or face-to-face), failing a test or experiencing a loss such as a death or the divorce of parents.

Mental health conditions

A number of mental health conditions can increase a teen’s risk for self-harm. These include:

What can I do if my child is self-harming?

First, discuss what the self-harm means to your child and ask why they are engaging in it. Talking to your child about any stressful events and keeping your child safe lets your child know that you are interested and available to them for support when they need it.

It is also important to find out if your child also has any thoughts of suicide.

How can my child cope with the urge to self-harm?

A child or teen can learn a number of coping strategies to replace long-lasting self-harm behaviours but still relieve emotional pain. These include:

  • flicking an elastic band against the wrist
  • using ice cubes on the skin or ice packs against the temples for one or two minutes
  • using deep breathing​ or progressive muscle relaxation
  • getting a brief amount of high intensity exercise – even 10 to 20 minutes can help.

Other strategies can include self-soothing through the five senses, for example:

  • looking at pleasant images or watching a relaxing video
  • listening to relaxing music or nature sounds
  • eating a favourite food for a meal or snack
  • wrapping themselves in a soft blanket or taking a bath
  • smelling pleasant scents such as scented candles, creams or balms.

When to seek medical help for self-harm

Once you learn that your child is self-harming, speak to your family doctor or paediatrician, as the behaviour may be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition.

Key points

  • Self-harm can include cutting, burning or hitting oneself to relieve emotional pain. Not everyone who self-harms has thoughts of suicide.
  • Stressful life events and existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, are the main causes of self-harming​ thoughts and behaviour.
  • If you learn that your child is harming themselves, talk to them about any stressful events and their impact on them.
  • Someone who engages in self-harm may benefit from safer coping strategies such as using ice cubes or icepacks on the skin, flicking an elastic band on the wrist or doing high intensity exercise.

Further information

For more information on protecting your child or teen from suicide or self-harm, please see the following pages:

Suicide in children and teens: Overview​

Suicide risk: Signs and symptoms

Suicide and self-harm: How to talk to your child about their emotions

Suicide and self-harm: How to protect your child

​​Marijana Jovanovic, MD, FRCPC
Daphne Korczak, MD, MSc, FRCPC (Paediatrics), FRCPC (Psychiatry)
2/10/2016

Resources

In Canada, children and teens in distress can contact KidsHelpPhone on KidsHelpPhone.ca or call 1-800-688-6868.​​​​

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