parenting | Teen boys | Teen Girls

How to Support a Young Person Who is Self-Harming

By Michelle Mitchell

I saw cuts on her leg and she told me she had fallen over on sharp grass during PE. I actually believed her at the time.  I didn’t think about it anymore until I saw cuts on her arm. That is when it clicked. That was at least 2 years ago now.

Given current national statistics, we can safely assume there are very few young people who haven’t known someone who has deliberately injured themselves by cutting, self-battery, overdosing or intentionally participating in risky behaviour. In 2015 the Australian Child and Adolescent Survey reported that approximately 10% of 12 – 17 year olds have self-harmed, with 8% self-harming within the last 12 months and 60% more than four times in that period.

Despite how widespread self-harm is and how normalised it has become in youth culture, I firmly believe that God has a plan to use this generation’s challenges to reveal Himself to them. And although it breaks my heart to see young people struggling in this way, I also know that we cannot underestimate how He may use self-harm for His glory. If you are a parent whose child is self-harming, know that self-harm is not in the too hard basket for God. He has got this generation in His hands and is deeply connected to their needs.

On the whole self-harm is very challenging for parents to understand. Many parents secretly find themselves thinking, “They are just ruining their body”, “They need to toughen up”, “Everyone has issues”, or “They just want attention”. If you are a parent who just doesn’t “get it”, be assured that you are not alone. The issue of self-harm conjures up frustration in many adults and the default reaction is often shaming, blaming and criticising because we don’t know how else to handle it. It takes time, deliberate effort, insight from above and often professional support to understand self-harm. Adults who “get it” have usually made a concerted effort to do so.

Over the past 15 years I have repeatedly heard young people express either a cry of pain or a cry for help through self-harming behaviour. Both cries are valid requests for specific support. I have not always found self-harm to be linked to suicidal thoughts, but research does indicate that those who self-harm are at higher risk of suicidal idealisation. I have always found the reasons for self-harm wide and variety and very difficult for young people to express. Initial conversations are often crowded by secrecy and shame. For these reason, any response to self-harm has to be approached with genuine empathy, patience and care rather than condemnation.

Parent are often the last ones to find out about self-harm and may be faced with a well-developed problem by the time they have the opportunity to intervene. Some of the first signs of self-harm include knowledge of others who are self-harming, unexplained marks on the body, wearing long sleeves that are never removed, difficulty expressing emotions, changes in behaviour, downward spiral, secretive behaviour, extended time alone, missing items that could be used for cutting (sharpeners, blades, scissors, safety pins, razors, led in pencils and signs of depression (withdrawn, sad, negative, lack of resilience and hope).

God wants to get in the middle of young people’s deepest emotions and provide real answers through His transforming power. I have more often seen this discovery happen through the support of a third party, such as a psychologist, counsellor, mentor of youth worker, and I encourage every adult to keep their eyes open to how they can make a difference in young lives. It is often through long term relationships that real change happens.

Although self-harm gives young people a euphoric sense of control like few other coping strategies there is hope. The opposite of self-harm and it’s only antidote is self-care. People who self-harm have forgotten how to care for themselves as God intended them to, and often need a renewed sense of purpose and hope in their lives in order to rediscover it. I personally encourage all young people who are self-harming to find at least three strategies to help navigate them through times of intense emotions. Each of these strategies below are great alternatives to self-harm and replace the “pain + self-harm = temporary relief” cycle with “pain + self-care = long term relief”. They can be used preventatively by young people at any time they feel the urge to self-harm.

Social Strategies –

  • Talk to a friend
  • Help someone else
  • Go to a public place

Physical Strategies –

  • Go to the gym
  • Punch a punching bag
  • Walk or ride a bike

Constructive Strategies –

  • Do homework
  • Clean room
  • Organise wardrobe

Comfort Strategies –

  • Cuddle a toy
  • Take a shower
  • Wear your PJs

Fun Strategies –

  • Watch a DVD
  • Listen to music
  • Play with a pet

Creative Strategies –

  • Write a letter
  • Do some art
  • Make a compilation

Spiritual Strategies –

  • Phone a mentor
  • Read the bible
  • Listen to worship music
  • Pray with someone you trust


Michelle Mitchell is the founder and CEO of Youth Excel, a charity which helps young people make positive life choices during difficult times. As a national speaker, Michelle has a unique ability to transfer years of knowledge and experience to people of all ages and professions. Her latest book Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal is out now and available globally. For more information visit