How to respond to self-harm

Angelique Foran, Clinical Psychologist, Cumberland Park SA

13 February 2019

How to respond to self-harm


Discovering that your child has been self-harming is a confronting and distressing time. What is the best way to respond to self-harm?

Most parents feel overwhelmed and alone when they find out their teen has been self-harming.  What is the best way to respond to self-harm?


Self-harm refers to the act of deliberately hurting your body. Most people self-harm in places where it can’t be seen and don’t disclose very often. Cutting is the most well-known type of self-harm however young people may also burn or punch themselves and pick skin or sores as well. Self-harm is used as a coping method to deal with intense distressing feelings or thoughts. Someone self-harming is not usually aiming to kill themselves, however, young people who repeatedly self-harm can experience a sense of hopelessness and then become suicidal.

Understanding the reasons for self-harm are important and this behaviour should not be ignored as it is usually an indicator of an underlying mental health condition.    When I speak with young people about their harming behaviour I like to explain that often people of their age cut themselves as a way to cope with intense emotional pain.  This explanation will usually get a nod of agreement from the young person. There is a lot of shame around self-harm so young people find it extremely difficult to talk about or disclose to anyone. When you find out that your child or someone you know has been cutting it is especially important to approach them with a calm and non judgemental attitude.

Letting your child know that you are aware of their cutting and that you care about them are important first steps in opening up a conversation.  Your child will also need to know that you want to help them find other ways to cope. Even if you approach this conversation in a respectful and sensitive matter,  understand that your child will find this conversation incredibly difficult. Professional help is recommended so that your teen learns to understand their overwhelming feelings and then find ways to put difficult experiences into words, and then learn alternative ways to cope with these difficult feelings.

At ThinkWise we have Clinical Psychologists who have many years of experience in helping young people who are using cutting as a coping mechanism. You can also have a look at a video of the calm harm app by checking us out on Facebook, to learn some of the strategies that can help your teen alleviate their distress.

See our Facebook page for a video on the Calm Harm app


Angelique Foran is available for interview or comment, please call 08 8271 4401.

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