Self-harm is when a child or young person intentionally damages or hurts their body. It can become addictive because of the natural pain-relieving endorphins that are released when people hurt themselves, which can give a temporary sense of relief.
Each child and young person’s relationship with self-harm is complex and different. It often happens during times of anger, distress, fear, anxiety, loss or depression.
Self-harm is more common in adolescence. 2015 data shows that in an average class of 30 15-year-olds, six may be self-harming.
Concerned about a child or young person?
If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority, who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.
Self-harm can also be a coping strategy for:
- dealing with difficult situations
- changing emotional pain into physical pain
- communicating distress about something in a non-verbal way
- attempting to relieve feelings of numbness, anger or aggression
- attempting to gain a sense of a control in a world where they feel out of control
Self-harming and risky behaviours can also be a way for a child or young person to punish themselves for feelings or behaviour that they think are their fault, or because they have a very negative self-image.
The majority of children and young people who self-harm do not have suicidal thoughts while self-harming. However, self-harm can escalate into suicidal behaviours.
Identifying the signs
Self-harm can include:
- hair pulling
- head banging
Physical self-harm may be indicated by a careful covering of arms and legs, or changes in behaviour around clothing – for example an avoidance of activities that involve changing clothes, like PE lessons.
Risky behaviour can sometimes be a form of self-harm, although it is often misinterpreted or overlooked. All children and young people will take risks and learning how to manage them is an important part of development. But when risk-taking is persistent, extreme, age-inappropriate, or compromises a child or young person’s safety and wellbeing, it can be a way of communicating distress.
It can highlight that a young person is struggling, and may be using risk-taking to lift their mood or distract/punish themselves in some way.
Risky behaviour can take many forms including:
- persistently challenging behaviour
- online risky behaviour such as sharing personal information, developing online (and offline) relationships with strangers; playing games rated for much older children; mixing with older peers or involvement in potentially abusive relationships
- eating disorders
- sexualised behaviour
- taking other risks that compromise physical safety or excessive sensation seeking
- taking illegal drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol
- attempted suicide
Find out more about self-harming and risky behaviour
MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. The following session aims to help staff better understand children’s self-harming behaviours.
- Self-harm and risky behaviour: provides the background to self-harm in children and teenagers, common associated conditions and approaches to managing it.
If a child or young person is self-harming, ask if they are okay
Talking about it won’t encourage more self-harm. Share with the student that you are worried about them and want to check if they are okay. Consult with your safeguarding lead first – don’t feel like you need to deal with it alone.
Check in regularly with the student. It may take a few invitations to talk before they feel able to risk sharing with you, but the most important thing you can do is listen.
Make a plan with the student
When the child or young person is ready, the safeguarding lead should make a plan and discuss and agree it with them. This will need to include informing their parents/carers. Action what you’ve agreed and keep the student informed; explain if you don’t manage to do something.
Concerned about a child or young person?
If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority, who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.Find out more