Health Information and Tools > Patient Care Handouts >  Learning About Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Your Child
Facebook Tweet Share

Main Content

Learning About Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Your Child

What is non-suicidal self-injury?

Non-suicidal self-injury means that a person injures themself on purpose. For example, they may cut, scratch, or bite their skin until it bleeds. Self-injury is serious. So it's important to seek help from a health professional. People who self-injure don't do it to die. But some may also be thinking about suicide.

How is it diagnosed?

To assess, the doctor may ask how often the injuries happen and if they bleed, bruise, or cause pain. And the doctor may ask how self-injuring makes your child feel. The doctor also may ask questions to find out if your child has other health conditions, like depression.

What puts your child at risk?

You can look for things that make self-injury more likely. Children may be at risk if they:

  • Have self-injured before.
  • Feel hopeless.
  • Have certain health conditions such as a personality disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or an eating disorder.
  • Don't have healthy ways to manage emotions like anger or sadness.
  • Feel numb or empty. They may turn to self-injury to feel something.
  • Are stressed or anxious about problems at school or at home.
  • Have low self-esteem.
  • Have a history of trauma.
  • Have a history of abuse.
  • Have a friend who self-injures.
  • Are LGBTQ2S+. Issues like bullying and discrimination can contribute to an increased risk.

What are the signs?

Your child might be self-injuring if they:

  • Have injuries that are unusual. For instance, your child may have multiple cuts or deep scratches on the arms, legs, or stomach.
  • Have odd blood stains on their clothes.
  • Wear bandages on their arms. Your child may do this to hide injuries.
  • Wear long sleeves when it's hot, especially if this is a change in how your child usually dresses.
  • Avoid activities that need less clothing (swimming, gym class), especially if these are things your child usually loves to do.
  • Wear lots of bracelets, wristbands, or other jewellery on large areas of their arms. Your child may use these to hide injuries.

If you think your child is self-injuring, talk to a doctor or a mental health professional.

How is it treated?

Self-injury is treated with counselling. Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) are common types of counselling for self-injury. Medicines are sometimes used with counselling. Ask your doctor about the different types of treatment. Then you can decide together about what might work best.

How can you care for your child?

If your child self-injures, here are some ways you can help.

  • Find a counsellor or therapist for your child.

    Look for a counsellor that your child feels safe with and trusts. You can ask your child's doctor for a referral.

  • Make a plan to keep your child safe.

    A health professional such as your child's doctor or counsellor can help you.

  • Manage how you react to your child.

    If you are feeling emotional, it's okay to take some time to yourself. It's best to approach your child when you're feeling calm.

  • Avoid trying to fix your child.

    Your usual parenting skills likely aren't the right tools to help your child. And you can't make your child stop self-injuring. Time and counselling can help your child get better.

  • Build a support system.

    You may want to find a counsellor for yourself. And look for a self-injury support group. Ask for help from trusted friends, family, and community members.

  • Take parenting classes.

    These can help you learn how to model healthy coping skills. For example, you can learn how to talk about emotions. And skills like deep breathing and yoga may help you learn how to manage your emotions.

If it's an emergency or if your child is in a crisis, get help right away. Call 911 or a suicide crisis centre. Keep the number for a suicide crisis centre on or near your phone. Go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention web page to find a suicide crisis prevention centre in your area.

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.