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If you learn that a loved one is self-harming:

  • try not to panic
  • deal with any immediate medical concerns first
  • listen and try to find out what they need

Provide an open environment where they can freely discuss thoughts and feelings. Talk about the self-harm.

Pretending it doesn't exist often reinforces shame. Try to see the person, not the injuries. The bigger picture is always important when someone is self-harming.

Try to acknowledge their pain without intruding. Try to understand the severity of their distress. Let them know you will talk whenever they want, don't rush them.

Let them know how you feel. Many people who self-harm have trouble expressing their thoughts and feelings. So don't withhold yours. Encourage them to cry - crying is a healthy and normal way to express sadness or frustrations.

If you need to, tell someone you trust. You're not a bad person or betraying your loved one's trust if you need support.

Distraction techniques

Suggest that your loved one use a distraction technique when they get the urge to self-harm. This involves distracting themselves until they feel the urge has passed.

Distraction can involve:

  • talking to someone, a friend or family member, a helpline or online support
  • doing some exercise - even running-on-the-spot or jumping jacks
  • shouting or singing at the top of their lungs – they can do this into a pillow if they don't want other people to hear

New ways to cope

To move past self-harming, your loved one will need to understand why they self-harm. Then they can learn new ways to deal with it.

Talking therapy can be an essential part of overcoming it.

Talk to your loved one about what kind of support they might consider. This can help to get them to attend appointments. Parents may be asked to take part in the therapy process.


It's also important to be realistic. Don't expect the behaviour to stop immediately. It may take a long time to replace the self-harm with a healthier coping strategy. Talking with you may be the first step.

Things that are unhelpful

Telling someone not to self-harm is both ineffective and condescending.

Most people who self-harm would stop if they could. Remember, it can be a coping mechanism they use to stay alive.


  • casual comments encouraging them to stop
  • making them feel guilty about self-harming or trying to punish them

The key thing in moving past self-harm is open and honest communication.

If an issue with self-harm is becoming overwhelming, talk to your GP about getting some extra support.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

page last reviewed: 23/09/2018
next review due: 23/09/2021

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