40 Ways to Help Young People Who Self-Harm

September 05, 2019

By Michelle Mitchell

If you have discovered that your child is self-harming you will be feeling a range of emotions – angry, sadness, frustration, disappointment or even plain old numb!  Each of these are a very normal and understandable part of grieving for a child who is struggling. This article is dedicated to helping parents understand how to practically combat self-harm by supporting their self-care. I always believe that once armed with practical tools for today, facing tomorrow is always easier.

I’d like you to think of the opposite of self-harm as self-care. Replacing self-harm strategies with self-care strategies is ideally what we want young people to do. Self-care will enable young people to regulate their strong emotions and avoid the overwhelming spiral that leads to self-harm. Like all things, it’s simple in theory, but not so simple in practice.

As a foundation for self-care, young people need to develop an awareness of how they feel and recognise when they need to begin to implement self-care strategies.  Identifying emotions can be difficult for some young people, especially if they have experienced trauma.  In these cases, a psychologist may be the best person to help them identify and express appropriate emotions.

Emotions demand movement. When emotions are escalating, they quickly move young people in either a positive or negative direction.  The good news is that young people can choose which direction they will follow.  Self-care will always move a young person in a positive direction.  Even a negative situation has the capacity to move a young person positively if they understand how to care for themselves. The more educated young people are, the more self-care options they have to choose from. 

Emotions, just like waves, have a limited life span.  When a young person practices self-care they ride the wave of intense emotion until is passes. It is important to remember that all emotions we experience, whether happy or sad, have a limited lifespan.  Self-care is a courageous decision to make, because it takes effort and strength. 

The basic premise for riding an emotional wave can be seen in Carol Vivyan’s 3D’s journal activity which I saw on the wall of a school classroom many years ago [33].

Delay:  Delay giving into the urge of self-harm for a set amount of time.  You get to decide on how long that time will be.  You can set a timer if you want to ensure you stick to the time you decide on.

Distract:  Do an activity that can occupy your thoughts and channel your energy in a positive direction.  Write a list of things you could do. This list can be written in advance.

Decide:  After the set period, decide how you are going to respond to the urge.  Write down the advantages and disadvantages of delaying the urge again, if it is still there.

It is interesting to consider the time frames between thoughts and actions, and how self-care may play a part in helping young people avoid self-harm in these time frames [14]:

  • 40% of young people decided to do so within one hour
  • 22.7% of young people decided to do so in more than an hour but less than a week
  • 29.3% of young people decided to do so made the decision more than one week before

Young people may consider a wider range of self-care strategies that may help them ride a wave of intense emotions.  Each individual will have a preference or type of self-care which works best for them, based on why they self-harm, and the typical length of time between their thoughts about self-harming and corresponding actions. 

Creative self-care strategies include: 

  • story writing
  • painting, drawing and other art forms
  • journaling
  • composing music or playing instruments
  • compiling music playlists
  • putting on makeup or styling hair
  • learning a new skill or art form

Soothing self-care strategies include:

  • taking a warm bath or shower
  • putting on comfortable clothes
  • buying different textured socks
  • drinking hot milk
  • cuddling a teddy bear or blanket
  • getting a massage
  • putting on perfume or lighting a scented candle
  • watching TV or a movie
  • meditation

Organising self-care strategies include:

  • sorting a wardrobe
  • cleaning a bedroom
  • building something
  • reorganising makeup
  • finishing homework or assignments

Social self-care strategies include:

  • phoning a friend
  • being with a friend
  • helping someone else in need
  • going to a public place
  • gaming with friends
  • watching funny you tube videos with friends
  • playing with a pet

Physical self-care strategies include:

  • riding a bike or going for a run
  • dancing
  • squeezing something
  • making a loud noise
  • ripping something
  • punching something 
  • eating something with a strong taste

I’d like to finish this article with a list of apps which will support young people’s journey to self-care. Each of these will work in partnership with the delay, distract and decide strategy.

  • #selfcare
  • Calm Harm
  • Mood Path
  • The Breathing APP
  • Sleep Cycle
  • Smiling Mind
  • The Resilience Project
  • Headspace

For more, check out Michelle’s book “Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help”.  This book is available at Big Sky Publishing, in all good bookstores and

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