Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Children

Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Children

Topic Contents


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 behaviour 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, call 9-1-1.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away.

  • Call Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645 (4 p.m. to midnight ET).
  • Kids or teens can call Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868.
  • Go to the Talk Suicide Canada website at or the Kids Help Phone website at for more information.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.


Current as of: October 20, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Andrew Littlefield PhD - Psychology, Behavioral Health
Lesley Ryan MD - Family Medicine
Donald Sproule MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine