What is self-harm? Self-harm is the act of physically hurting yourself on purpose without the intent of committing suicide. It is also a method of coping during an emotionally difficult time that helps some people temporarily feel better.

Self Harm is a harmful act done to yourself. Lashing out in anger at others is NOT self-harm.

Self-harm is only done by yourself.  If anyone else does something to you that causes pain this is not self-harm.

An act of self-harm includes some sort of physical violence. Emotionally punishing yourself (calling yourself names or thinking you’re stupid, ugly, etc.) is NOT self-harm (albeit can be emotionally harming).

An act of self-harm is not done with the intention of killing yourself.  People who slit their wrists to kill themselves, even though they have harmed their body, are NOT self-injuring.

Self-harm is done intentionally. Not accidentally, but with the intent purpose of hurting yourself.

Why do people self-harm?

Self-harm allows physical expression of emotion/feelings (releases tension/pain inside). For some, hurting oneself produces chemical changes – endorphins, which are the same chemicals that cause a “runners high” and it increases feeling of happiness and relaxation.

Types of self-harm/self injurious behaviours include cutting, burning, interference with the healing of wounds, hitting, nail biting, scratching and breaking of bones and many other ways people hurt themselves that are not listed here.


Depending on whether a child or youth feels overwhelmed with emotion or empty/numb, different strategies will help them and reduce the risk of self-harm. Emotional expression is especially helpful if the youth is angry at someone or themselves.

During a shared chore or activity where you can talk- ask the youth or child what is going on for them. Side by side is most often helpful (e.g., doing dishes, in the car). Imagine you have only 30 seconds to send your message.

What can help?

Deep breathing (Belly Breathing; Finger Breathing), yoga/body Work, relaxation exercises (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation), sensory experiences, draw on self with red marker (if drawing blood is part of their self-harm), emphasis on distraction and action, Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies (DBT).

Other options or replacement behaviours:

  • Snap an elastic on the wrist
  • Hold ice cubes in hands or mouth as long as you can
  • Eat something spicy or taste hot sauce
  • Take a hot / cold shower
  • Run or play sports/exercise
  • Drawing
  • Journaling
  • Letter-writing (to oneself in the past, present, or future, to others that can be sent or not, torn up, saved but not read)
  • Talking
  • Choosing a song to match or distract
  • Draw on self with red marker (if drawing blood is part of their self-harm)

Unless risk is imminent, the best interventions are close monitoring and restricted access to potentially harmful objects. Sometimes, people thinking of self-harm will be honest about what they might use, but take stock of the area to reduce the temptation, especially if they might act on impulse. Because self-harm is typically hidden from others, check for hidden methods under mattresses or other locations. Remember that some objects (e.g., CD’s) can be broken to create a sharp edge.

Want more info? 

Self-harm in over 8s: short-term management and prevention of recurrence

Cutting and Self-harm