How to Break the Cycle of Self-Harm

The blog post below is a very brief summary of Pooky’s on demand course ‘Supporting young people to break the cycle of self-harm.’ We have a range of courses about self-harm which you can view here.

Look Beyond Injuries

In order to help a child who is self-harming, an important first step is often to forget about the injuries altogether and really see the child.  The injuries and our fear of now knowing how best to help can often act as a blocker to us doing the things we’d otherwise do well. 

What need is being met?

If the cycle of self-harm is being repeated, then there must be something that is positively reinforcing the behaviour for the child.  Self-harm is often disregarded as ‘attention seeking’ but more helpful and less stigmatised interpretations include ‘attachment seeking’ or ‘attention needing’. 

How else can this need be met?

If we can identify the need that is being met by self-harm then we are the first step along the way to supporting a child to move to healthier coping strategies.  If, for example, you identify that self-harm helps calm a child’s anger or anxiety then we might prioritise working with them to develop less harmful approaches to calming and emotional regulation.  There are some ideas in the ‘healthy coping’ resource I shared as part of this course.

Manage crisis moments with a safety plan

There is good evidence that the writing and utilisation of a safety plan can improve outcomes for people at risk of self-harm or suicide.  Writing the plan is as important as enacting it.  You can download a suicide safety plan or create an online plan using prompts for populating it at stayingsafe.net or you can use the simple template I’ve shared as part of this course. 

Injury management matters

We need to see the child and not just their injuries, but we also need to ensure that we keep children safe.  Where first aid is needed this should be provide promptly though we should take care not to reinforce the association between harm and care & listening. 

Where possible, children should be taught how to look after their injuries and they should be aware of the signs of infection and shock and know how to respond if they spot these signs. 

Provide support outside of self-injury

Ensuring that children can feel seen and heard outside of self-harm incidents can help to break the cycle of reinforcement that we can sometimes unwittingly create through our kindness.  It’s also important that all children know how to access support when needed and that they feel confident they will be listened to without the ‘proof’ of injuries or suicidal intent as a gateway to help. 

You do not have to fix, walk with

Often we are not able to change a child’s situation, but there is often a lot we can do to help things feel a little bit better right now, and to enable them to feel a little less alone. 

Further Learning

Support Young People to Break the Cycle of Self-Harm – on demand course

Simple Self-Soothe Strategies – on demand course

Support Students Who Self-Harm: 8 Ideas That Work – on demand course

Self-harm and eating disorders in schools – book

Can I tell you about self-harm – book

View all of Creative Education’s courses about self-harm