What is it? 

Self-harm is the act of physically hurting oneself without the intent of committing suicide. It is a sign of neurochemical imbalance in the brain and emotional distress, signalling that a child has a lack of healthy emotional regulation skills. Children typically engage in self-harming behaviour to cope with big feelings and/or to express their pain.

What are the signs of self-harm in children? 

Self-harm is not a diagnosis in and of itself but children who engage in self-harm are most often diagnosed with neurodevelopmental challenges such as mood disorders, eating disorders and behavioural disorders.  Some signs of self-harm in children under the age of 6 include hitting their head against the wall, severely biting their skin or cutting the skin with sharp tools.

When is it time to seek professional help? 

You need to seek professional help if the child is injuring themselves and showing signs of physical illness that is affecting their sleep and eating habits as well as their school and family life. If you’ve tried to discourage the behaviour using different strategies and nothing has changed or it’s gotten worse.

What makes some children more vulnerable to self-harming thoughts and behaviours? 

Risk factors for self-harming behaviour include: 

  • Trauma, adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress
  •  Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Family history of mental health challenges and brain-based disorders 
  • Witnessing someone exhibiting the same self-harming behaviour

What can be done? 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of behavioural therapy that teaches a person to recognize behaviour and helps them change how they behave. 

Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that teaches children how to regulate their emotions and respond to emotional distress through skills training.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a brief treatment that focuses on how interpersonal factors affect a child’s emotional state.

Family-based therapy focuses on helping the family act in more positive and supportive ways through education.

Where can I access support?

In an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency care facility. 

If not an immediate emergency, call 811 to speak with a registered nurse. 

Talk to the child’s family doctor or pediatrician to help identify if the child’s behaviour is normal for their developmental stage. 

Talk to the child’s guardianship worker and share your behavioural observations. Explore what options are available for assessment so their diagnosis and treatment plan can be included in their Care Plan. The guardianship worker will help make appropriate referrals for specialized supports and services.

Get an assessment through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team. Your local CYMH office offers a range of free and voluntary mental health services and supports for children from 0-18 years of age and their families. These services include assessments, therapy and treatment, education and referrals to specialized programs and resources. There are 100 intake clinics for children, youth and their families at convenient locations throughout BC. 

You can also contact a private psychologist or counsellor through the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors or the BC Psychological Association. You can use website filters to search for a counsellor in your community that specializes in certain mental health challenges.



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Foster parents are encouraged to call this number in the event of an EMERGENCY or CRISIS occurring after regular office hours:



If you think a child or youth under 19 years of age is being abused or neglected, you have the legal duty to report your concern to a child welfare worker. Phone 1 800 663-9122 at any time of the day or night. Visit the Government of BC website for more info.


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Our work takes place on the traditional and unceded Coast Salish territories of the Kwantlen, Katzie, Matsqui and Semiahmoo First Nations. BCFPA is committed to reconciliation with all Indigenous communities, and creating a space where we listen, learn and grow together.

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