5 things NOT to say to a child who self-harms

Supporting a child or teen who self-harms, will be one of the most stressful and difficult times of your life. But you have to be careful about showing your child how upset and worried you are. You see, there will be many times when they’ll trigger a strong knee-jerk reaction from you, but it’s often advisable to hide this. Your unrestrained reaction can be unhelpful, as it reveals all the strong anxieties and worries you have inside. What they actually need to see in you is a strong, stable, loving parent, that they can rely on during this tumultuous time in their life. Even if it’s just a front!

So in our experience, knowing what NOT TO SAY at times you feel triggered and upset is really important to work out in advance.  

Here are 5 things NOT to say to your self-harming child: 

#1 Please don’t do it again today

This statement can come from a place of love and wanting to protect your child. That’s totally understandable. But pressuring your child to stop can do more damage than good. Telling a young person to stop self-harming can cause more distress, as teens often self-harm as a way to deal with overwhelming emotions that they just can't deal with.  

#2 I’m so worried about you

Your child’s self-harming is a deeply frightening experience for you, but passing on your worries and anxieties to your child will often make it harder for them to deal with their own overwhelming emotions. For your teen, worrying about their parent/parent’s sadness or worries just gives them another burden on top of their own problems, and makes them less likely to open up and share with you again. Being strong and positive, even if you have to pretend at first, can be what your child needs from you.

#3 I need you to tell me what’s going on

Young people are struggling with a mix of overwhelming situations, such as friendship problems, struggles with school, bullying, and other everyday stress. 

It can be very hard for your teen to put into words and to feel comfortable opening up about what’s going on in their own lives. Be patient and do not pressure your child to tell you about what is going on in their life, but to open up about the emotions they are feeling instead. This will make them feel as if you are trying to understand their feelings better.

#4 I don’t understand why you do this

Every young person has their own reasons for self-harming. Understanding the emotions that lead your child there is more important than knowing more about the act of self-harming itself.

And even if your child is reluctant to or finding it difficult to explain exactly how they’re feeling, showing them that you are there for them and there is no need for them to explain themselves will take the pressure-off time you spend together. It can reduce the feeling of walking on eggshells when you’re together!

Over time, your child may open up and share, allowing you to understand their self-harming together, but this is usually a gradual process requiring a lot of time and patience.

Note to reader: if you’d like help with managing your emotions when you’re triggered by your child, or want advice on connecting with your child so they feel comfortable sharing what they’re going through, then I’d definitely advise signing up for our free online course that deals with this and so much more! Click here to find out more.

#5 Why can’t you just stop doing this?

If self-harming was easy to stop, would a young person continue considering all the guilt, shame and distress that it brings? Many young people try to resist the urge to self-harm but this can be unbelievably difficult.

Stopping the cycle of self-harm usually takes some time and can only happen once a young person has learnt to cope with their overwhelming thoughts and feelings in a healthier way.

You can find out about the ‘Cycle of Self-Harm’ and why it’s so hard to stop by clicking here 

Asking them to stop immediately normally simply sets your child up to fail, and risks undoing any closeness and honesty you’ve gained up to that point. 

In fact, asking them to stop might just cause your child or teen to:

  • Choose not to talk to you about their issues in the future.
  • Stopping one form of self-harm and taking up a new one you won't spot so easily (e.g. burning themselves in hidden places, drinking or getting into fights instead of cutting etc) 
  • Trying very hard not to harm themselves and then doing so more severely once they finally do give in as their feelings are more pent up than usual.

Instead of asking your child to stop outright, offer your help in finding the support and strategies they need in order to develop healthier means of coping. 

Think before reacting – why is this important?

This will develop a practice of being mindful in every interaction with your child. You will quickly recognise when the way you’re about to respond doesn’t fit with what you know your child needs from you.

Having the statements below will help you know what to say in difficult moments, to break an awkward, uncomfortable silence with your child. In time, you will build a habit of saying and doing the right thing, holding back from expressing your anxieties or worries and only feeding your child positivity and reassurance.

          What not to say:                                                           Say instead:

Have you hurt yourself today…?

I know how hard this is for you and I promise we will get through this together.

Please don’t do it again today…?

Just know I'm here for you, no matter what. I love you so much.

I’m so worried about you…?

I can see how unhappy you are. Just know I love you and I am 100% committed to working through all this with you…

I need you to tell me what’s going on…?

You don't need to explain anything to me unless you want to. Just know I love you so much and I'm always here if you ever want to talk.

I don’t understand why you do this…?

It's OK, you don't need to explain anything... Just know I love you and I'm here for you.

Why can’t you just stop doing this…?

I love you so much, it doesn't matter how long it takes, we are a team and I promise we will get through this together.

This is not normal…

I know it may not seem like it to you but... what you’re going through is normal and we are going to get through it all together.


SIGN-UP FOR OUR FREE ONLINE COURSE where we coach you to play a key role supporting your child’s healing & recovery; their journey back to health and happiness: www.youthmentalhealthfoundation.org/onlinecourse 

DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE BOOKLET and learn how a mother led her self-harming teenage child back to health & happiness: www.YouthMentalHealthFoundation.org/e-boo

We will be publishing an article in our blog very soon - so watch this space.


Research and Community Executive
Youth Mental Health Foundation CIC


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