Self-Harm In Children: What Should Parents Do When It Happens?

Self-Harm In Children: What Should Parents Do When It Happens?

10 min read

Here are the do's and don'ts on how to help them.

[Trigger Warning: This entire article discusses multiple forms of self-harm, and includes graphic content.]

Today I’m going to talk about a difficult topic that some of you might find relatable: Self-harm in children


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Self-harming is more prevalent in Singapore than you might think. In fact, a 2019 study by YouGov said that 23% of Singaporeans have engaged in self-harm, and it is “particularly prevalent” for younger Singaporeans. I was even more disturbed when I spoke to my clinical psychologist friend, Ooi Sze Jin, who told me that the youngest case she saw of self-harm was from a 12-year-old.

Types of self-harm

When I talk about self-harm, a lot of people would immediately assume it’s done by cutting themselves with a penknife. Yes, this is a common way to do it, but there are more ways that self-harm can take place. It could come in the form of:

  • Scratching or pinching
  • Head-banging
  • Burning/scalding
  • Self-hitting or hitting other objects
  • Ingesting harmful substances

According to Sze Jin, founder of counselling centre A Kind Place, there are different triggers for children who self-harm. They might be going through psychological distress and don’t know how to deal with their emotions, so they hurt themselves to find a way to feel some relief. Some may also do it because they feel that they are unable to control certain circumstances in their lives, and want to find a way to regain control. Another possible reason is that these children feel like they deserve to be punished from a sense of guilt or shame from previous trauma.

Wah, when I heard all these, my heart felt so pained. Which parents would want to see their children suffer like that right? While knowing the reason behind your children’s self-harm is important, what you — as a parent — do when you find out is equally crucial.

First Reactions Matter

There are two ways you could find out about your child self-harming: either your child tells you about it themselves, or you find out by accident or through a third party.

Scenario 1: Your child voluntarily tells you about their self-harm attempts


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Take it as a good sign. It means they trust you enough to share about what they are going through. This is them literally asking for your help. In such cases, be careful about what you say to them. If you are shocked and have no idea what to say, thank them first for feeling safe enough to share the matter with you first, and assure them that you are here for them. And then you can talk about it in-depth after you have processed it properly.

Scenario 2: You found out about your child’s self-harm by accident


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As a parent, I know the first few reactions are probably confusion and anger. Why did you do it? Why didn’t you tell me? Are you so unhappy with your life that you have to hurt yourself? These are some questions that could come to mind. BUT it is important that you don’t rush to confront your children about it. If this is really happening, your child could be confused and trying to grapple with his or her emotions. Try to understand his or her situation — he or she might want to tell you later when they are more ready, but you found out first.

If your child is hesitant to tell you about their self-harm urges, perhaps it's time to reflect on how you usually react to your child’s problems. Are you a kan cheong (impatient or hasty) parent that always gets angry first? Maybe that’s why they didn’t talk to you first. If that’s so, you would have to find ways to assure them that you will not react rashly to whatever they have to say, so they would be encouraged to open up more.

What NOT to do


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I spoke to a child who has self-harmed before, and she said this is her feedback for parents who are dealing with similar situations:

Don’t be quick to talk, listen more: Parents tend to want to solve their children’s problems, but sometimes a child has to solve their own problems in their own way. Sometimes, they don’t need to hear advice, they just want a listening ear.

Don’t judge and get angry. Once you show your anger, your children will not want to open up to you anymore.

Don’t dismiss your child’s problem or be too busy to hear them out. If your child wants to talk to you, please put down whatever you are doing and tend to them first. Because it actually takes a lot of courage to tell you about their problems. The last thing they need to hear is: “Wait ah, I talk to you tonight. I’m very busy now.” The window of opportunity is very small. Take it while you can.

“If parents are punitive, unsupportive, passive, or unavailable, there would be a higher likelihood of self-harm.”
– Ooi Sze Jin, Clinical Psychologist

What you CAN do


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So what should you do when you find out about such alarming news? 

Sze Jin says parents of self-harming children can try speaking to them honestly and providing them with a space to express their emotions. “Let them know that you are concerned and what you have noticed, in a gentle and compassionate way,” she added.

Besides ensuring that your children know you are there for them, you can also talk to their school teacher to find out more about their situation in a private and confidential manner. Try to get a big picture of their school life, and see if there are any signs of stress. 

If you think that your child can do with a little bit of external help, you can find a suitable counsellor to guide your child through his or her recovery process. However, this could be a trial-and-error method that can take a while. Finding a person that your child likes and feels comfortable opening up to is very important. 

Counselling is about being able to talk, so your child needs to have someone he or she feels could understand her. For example, a child may see a younger counsellor as a friend that they relate to and trust, as compared to an older one whom they may see as another authority figure.

Above all, be patient. Patience is key to recovery. Counselling takes time, so you cannot approach it with a mentality of “What's the problem? Let’s fix it.” You need to provide a safe space for your child to learn and journey through these complex emotions they are experiencing. 

It’s not about solving the problem. It’s about building the child up so they can start seeing their problem from another perspective, learn how to cope and handle it emotionally. 

You can also help your child through this difficult time of theirs by spending more quality time with him or her. Your child needs you now more than ever. If you are a busy parent, it would be great if you could take some time off work to spend quality time with them and get to really know your children better. Be a friend, not a source of authority for them. This will encourage them to tell you more about their situation.

Myths to Debunk


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Learning that your child is self-harming can not only be a difficult time for the child, but for you as a parent as well. Here are some common misconceptions you may have:

1. I am a bad parent for letting my child reach the stage of self-harming.

This may not necessarily be true. Many teenagers are secretive and prefer talking to their peers than to their parents. They might also see others doing it, and get curious themselves. While being a supportive and available parent can reduce the risk of self-harm, it cannot completely remove the risk. 

2. It's just a phase, I'll wait it out and see if my child recovers.

This mentality is not only false, but could be dangerous as well. Ignoring a problem does not make the problem go away. Your child is struggling emotionally and doesn’t know how to deal with it. He or she needs support and warmth. Even telling your child that you are there for them or are trying to reach out, helps them know that you care. This will make them feel more loved. 

3. Seeing a therapist is too expensive.

This is a misconception that a lot of parents have, which stops them from seeking professional help for their children. But there are various options to see a therapist. Private practice psychologists, counsellors, and psychiatrists might be more expensive. However, there are other options such as seeing associate counsellors, or community mental health clinics that offer cheaper therapy options. Every school also has at least one in-house counsellor whom your child can see for free. Our Ministry of Education has also said this year that it plans to hire and train more school counsellors over the next few years. 

For some companies, employees are also offered Employee Assistance Programme support which covers family members or insurance policies that allow for mental health services to be claimable.

4. My child will be sent to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) if he/she sees a therapist.

This is absolutely NOT true. A child can see any psychologist at a private clinic or social service organisation. The therapist would only refer the child to IMH if the case is beyond their capabilities to manage (e.g. The self-harm includes suicidal thoughts/plans/attempts that require in-patient support, or they require medication to manage their condition, or they require further psychological assessments that the clinic is unable to provide).

Where to seek help

If you find what I’ve said very relatable, or if you know of someone who needs help in the mental health area, here are some organisations that you can consider reaching out to:

A Kind Place: 8757 8049 (WhatsApp)
National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am – 12am)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928

Mental health does not have to be a scary or unapproachable issue to tackle. Don’t be afraid to speak to someone about it—you’ll be surprised how many people are dealing with it as well. I hope this article has been helpful to you. If you have other mental health topics you would like me to find out more about, just let me know at!

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