Self-harm is when someone inflicts physical harm on themselves, often without anyone else knowing. It is often an expression of emotional distress.

You will more than likely be very shocked, or upset, if you discover your son or daughter is engaging in self-harm but, try to realise it’s most commonly used as a way of coping with difficult or painful feelings.

Youth Mental Health Self HarmIt isn’t necessarily a suicide attempt and engaging in self-harm may not mean someone wants to die.

However, statistically people who self-harm are at a greater risk of going on to take their own lives. It should always be taken seriously so emotional problems associated with it don’t escalate.

Self-harming behaviour

Examples of self-harm can include:

  • cutting
  • burning
  • biting
  • hitting
  • pulling out hair
  • scratching and picking at sores on skin.

It can also include behaviours that have some level of suicide intent, such as overdoses.

Why would someone self-harm?

People may self-harm as a way of:

  • expressing difficult or overwhelming feelings
  • providing a temporary sense of feeling again
  • punishing themselves
  • communicating a need for support, it can be hard to verbalise the need
  • making themselves feel alive
  • providing a feeling of control
  • providing comfort to themselves.

What can a parent do to help?

If you learn that your son or daughter is self-harming:

  • try not to panic
  • deal with immediate medical concerns
  • listen and find out what they need
  • acknowledge their pain without intruding
  • try to understand the severity of their distress
  • provide an open environment where they can freely discuss thoughts and feelings
  • talk about the self-harm, pretending it doesn’t exist often reinforces shame
  • let them know you will talk whenever they want, don’t rush them
  • see the person, not the injuries.

Distraction techniques

If you become aware your son or daughter is self-harming, suggest when they get urges to self-harm they try to put it off by using a distraction technique.

This involves distracting themselves until they feel the urge to have passed.

Distraction can involve:

  • talking to someone, either to a friend or family member or by calling a helpline or going online
  • Doing exercise, e.g. running or doing star jumps
  • Shouting or singing at the top of their lungs, on their own or to music – they can do this into a pillow if they don’t want other people to hear.

See for a list of over 100 distraction from self-harm techniques.

New ways to cope

To move past self-harming, your son or daughter will need to understand why they engage in it and learn new ways to deal with it.

Talking therapy can be an essential part of overcoming it.

Discuss with your son or daughter about what kind of support they would consider, and help by bringing them to appointments. You, as a parent, may also be asked to take part in the therapy process.


It’s also important to be realistic. Don’t expect the behaviour to stop immediately. It may take a long time to replace the self-harm with a healthier coping strategy. Talking with you may be the first step.

What’s unhelpful?

Telling someone not to self-harm is both ineffective and condescending.

Most young people who self-harm would stop if they could. Remember, it can be a coping mechanism they use to stay alive.

Even casual comments encouraging your son or daughter to stop should be avoided because they run the risk of damaging your relationship and forming a barrier to effective communication.

Avoid making them feel guilty about self-harming or trying to punish them.

The key thing in moving past self-harm is open and honest communication. If an issue with self-harm is becoming over-whelming either for you personally or your son or daughter, talk to your family GP about getting some extra support.

More information about self-harm for parents

>>ReachOut Ireland, in conjunction with the HSE, have created this information booklet for parents and concerned adults.

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