Cutting and self-harm – what parents need to know


Cutting and self-harm – what parents need to knowFor most parents, self-harm is an alien and confusing concept. It’s normal to experience a number of incredibly distressing emotions and feelings of helplessness upon learning your child is hurting themselves. In order to dispel such anxiety-provoking myths, let’s look at the facts and provide you with some tools to your child.

Self-injury, also known as self-harm or self-mutilation, is known by society in its most common form – cutting. However, other behaviours include burning, scratching, mild poisoning and picking. Generally, self-harm is not an attempt to complete suicide but rather an increasingly common, yet addictive, maladaptive coping strategy used predominately by youth.

One Study of Canadian youth found that almost 2 out of every 10 youth aged 14-21 had hurtthemselves on purpose at one time or another ~ CHEO

As contradictory as it may sound, many youth find that the pain of inflicting harm on themselves successfully increases their sense of control by interrupting feelings of anxiety, emotional pain and numbness, and thoughts of self-loathing.

Unfortunately, youth who self-harm may be generally unaware of healthier ways of coping with negative feelings and this can make harming themselves feel less like a choice and more of a necessity. Unlike with healthier ways of coping, the relief that comes with self-harm is fleeting and it can become an addictive as it takes more incidents and increased severity to achieve the same feelings of calm. As a parent, it is normal to want to insist your child to just stop harming themselves and it’s tempting to threaten them with consequences and ultimatums if they do not; however, this can be counterproductive and increase stress.

Tips for parents of children who self-harm

Thankfully, there are many ways parents can help their child to adopt healthier coping strategies.

  1. Talk to your child about self-harm – If you know or suspect that your child is harming themselves, have an open conversation with them about it. Talking to your child about self-harm will not cause your child to initiate self-harming behaviours, but will communicate care and concern. Let your child know you are worried about them and are there to support them.
  2. Teach your child first aid – Encourage your child to wash minor cuts or injuries out with soap and water so that they do not get infected. For more serious forms of self-injury, such as cutting that requires stiches, or severe burns, take your child to a walk-in-clinic or emergency room for medical treatment.
  3. Discuss short-term healthy coping and harm-reduction strategies – Although not a permanent solution, it can be helpful to suggest creating a “coping list” that includes activities that your child finds relaxing or stress-reducing, like singing, drawing, writing, listening to music, exercising and spending time with friends. Include helpful phone numbers like your Employee and Family Assistance number or kids help phone. These may help curb your child’s tendency to rely on self-harm.

Harm-reduction strategies are only to be used if all of the healthy coping techniques have been unsuccessful and your child is afraid they are going to follow through with thoughts of self-harm. Some suggestions are snapping an elastic band on their wrist, eating a hot pepper or a chili flake or holding an ice cube. Please consult a counsellor before suggesting or coming up with your own harm-reduction techniques.

  1. Access professional counselling and support services – Make appointment with your child’s family health-care provider and consider seeking help through a counsellor. They may be able to refer you to programs in your area that help youth dealing with self-harm behaviours or underlying issues such as anxiety or depression.
  2. Engage in self-care and healthy coping yourself – In order to avoid transferring your own distress onto your child, it may helpful to engage in some healthy coping and self-care exercises of your own. You’ll then be able to speak to your child in a manner that is calm, supportive and non-judgmental. Setting up your own individual counselling for emotional support and coping is an excellent way to begin your own process of self-care.

If you are interested in learning more, contact your Employee and Family Assistance Program and speak to a counsellor. Call 1 866 833-7690 or visit

Additional resources

Cornell Research program on Self-injurious behaviour in Adolescents and Young Adults.

What you need to know about… Helping Children and Youth with Self-Harm behaviours. Information for Parents and Caregivers.

Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment.

When Your Child is Cutting: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Overcome Self-Injury. Authors: Sony Khemlani-Patel, Merry McVey-Noble, Fugen Neziroglu




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