Understanding Self-Harming Behaviour in Children

There are lots of reasons why a child may choose to self-harm, and many ways they may do it. As a foster carer, it can be really upsetting to learn that your child is deliberately hurting themselves, and difficult to know how best to help them without making the situation worse.

This guide can give you a better understanding of why children self-harm and provide ways you can offer them help and support.

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Spotting the early signs of self-harming behaviour in children

While self-harm often leaves scars and marks, it can still be very hard for parents and carers to know when their child has hurt themselves. Young people who self-harm often try to cover up any physical marks or injuries, making it difficult to know when they’re harming themselves.

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Here are some of the early signs to look out for which could reveal that your child is self-harming:

  • Cuts, burns, bald patches, bruises or bite marks on their body which they can’t explain.
  • Covering their body around others, particularly their forearms. They may also avoid PE at school by forgetting their kit or be very reluctant to go swimming
  • Withdrawing from friends and family; isolation is one of the earliest signs that something is wrong
  • Low mood, mood swings or unexplained anger
  • Feelings of uselessness, failure and self-blame, and becoming very upset over the smallest things
  • Lack of energy or being very tired
  • Avoiding things they usually enjoy
  • A shift in their routine; you might find them sleeping more or less
  • Not taking care of their physical appearance
  • Using alcohol or drugs
  • Being accident prone, shaky or particularly clumsy

These are just some of the signs that your child may be self-harming. Some young people can continue living a normal life whilst using self-harm to cope with their feelings, making it very hard to see how, when and why they could be hurting themselves.

If you suspect your child may be self-harming, even if there have only been a few small signs, it’s important to monitor their behaviour. This will help you seek advice on how to support them should the time come when you need to intervene.

Why do children self-harm?

Self-harm often stems from how a person copes with negative feelings and difficult experiences. People who self-harm often say hurting themselves gives them a release from the overwhelming feelings and negative thoughts which can build up over time, helping them control their feelings day-to-day.

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Here are just a few of the reasons why a child may self-harm.

  • Managing emotional upset and distress – caused by previous experiences or a mental health issue, such as depression
  • Distracting themselves from emotional pain by inflicting physical pain on their body, which temporarily allays negative thinking
  • Expressing their emotions when they feel like they have no one to talk to
  • Regaining control over their mind and body when negative thoughts have become an inescapable part of their daily life
  • Punishing themselves for negative thoughts or experiences which they think are shameful
  • Punishing others for their anger or lack of empathy towards them; some children use self-harm as a means of punishing their parents or carers

In most cases, there an underlying reason why a child would choose to self-harm. Negative experiences from their past, such as a family bereavement, bullying, or sexual abuse, are often to blame for self-harming behaviours. Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, as well as sexuality, gender identity and public body image issues are also associated with a young person wanting to hurt themselves physically.

Self-harming can easily become a habit, so even when a child seems happy, they may still be harming themselves as a way of controlling their emotions and ensuring that negative feelings don’t return.

The different forms of self-harm

People self-harm in lots of different ways, and will often use different techniques depending on how they’re feeling at the time. While it can be difficult and upsetting to think of your child hurting themselves in such a way, it’s important to know some of the common forms of self-harming behaviour so that you know what to look out for.

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Here are some of the early signs to look out for which could reveal that your child is self-harming:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Poisoning (often with excessive alcohol or illegal drugs)
  • Scratching or biting
  • Punching or kicking walls or other hard objects
  • Inserting things into the body
  • Pulling hair out
  • Overdosing on prescription or over-the-counter medication

These are just some of the techniques people use to self-harm. Children may use one or more forms of self-harm to control their emotions, with cutting being one of the most common ways of inflicting physical pain.

There are also less obvious behaviours which are classed as self-harm, including over or under eating, exercising excessively to the point of exhaustion, drinking heavily or taking drugs, or having regular unprotected sex with strangers. These forms of self-harm, though less obvious than those listed above, still show an intent to cause pain through potentially harmful physical behaviour.

How to help a foster child who displays self-harming behaviour

If you think your child is self-harming, it can be very difficult to know what to do. You may feel upset, confused or even angry, and wonder how you missed the signs. And, if you only suspect they’re harming themselves, you may not know how to approach them and offer the kind of help and support they need.

Below, we list some things that can help your child cope with self-harm, as well as the resources we’d recommend for additional help and advice.

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  • Don’t interrogate your child – Even after you’ve found out about their self-harming, don’t quiz them with lots of questions and put pressure on them. They will need to talk to you in their own time, so it’s more a case of showing that you’re there for them.
  • Don’t police their behaviour – It can be hard not to intervene when you think your child is self-harming, but policing their behaviour and trying to force them to stop could make the situation worse.
  • Remember why your child is self-harming – There’s almost always an underlying reason for a child’s self-harming; it’s a coping mechanism that they use to get through very hard times. Be sure to remind yourself of this before approaching your child about their behaviour.
  • Maintain firm boundaries and discipline – When a child is self-harming, it can be useful to maintain a normal routine – and discipline plays a part in that. Maintaining normal boundaries of behaviour and disciplining your child may feel difficult, but it shows them that you’re empathetic and that you care about their welfare
  • Try to be as open as possible – Self-harm is one of the most difficult things to talk about, and your child may feel shameful and insecure about addressing it directly. Keep an open line of communication with your child, but let them come to you on their own terms, without fear of judgement or confrontation.
  • Seek professional help – Both for your child and yourself. Discovering self-harm can be traumatic and upsetting, so it’s important that you think about your own welfare, too. There are many services available for children and their carers to get advice and support on self-harm – some of which we’ve listed in the table below.

Get help on self-harming

Service Details Contact
YoungMinds Confidential help and information for children and parents. 0808 802 5544
Harmless Dedicated support, training and information for self-harm and suicide prevention. [email protected]
National Self Harm Network Forums and online chat for those who self-harm and their families. Visit the website to get involved in discussions.
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) Dedicated support network for young men suffering from mental health problems or in crisis. 0808 58 58 58
Childline The UK’s biggest crisis-support and helpline for children and their families, offering confidential help and support 24 hours a day. 0800 1111

Self-harm can be traumatic, upsetting and very difficult to live with – but you don’t have to go through it alone. Reach out to specialist services or a family crisis helpline to get confidential advice and support whenever you feel you need it.

At NFA, we provide extensive support for foster carers, so they always have someone to turn to for help and guidance. If you’re interested in joining our network of dedicated foster carers, you can learn more about becoming a foster carer.


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