Types of self-harm


As a foster carer, you may face many challenges on your fostering journey that are difficult to navigate. Self-harming is an issue that can affect children in many ways, for a number of reasons. As a foster carer, it can be upsetting to learn that your foster child may be struggling with this, and you may not know where to start to try and tackle it.

In this guide, we outline this difficult topic to help give you a better understanding of what it is, how it happens and how you can help and support your foster children.

What is self-harm?

Self-harming is a way in which a child copes with negative feelings and difficult experiences. It’s not usually an attempt at suicide or a cry for help, although people who self-harm often find it provides temporary relief for their overwhelming negative feelings and thoughts. This brief relief of pressure is seen as a way of controlling negative feelings on a day-to-day basis, but is then replaced with further feelings of guilt or pressure – which is how the cycle continues.

Types of self-harm

There are different behaviours that can be seen as self-harm. These are typically broken down into two categories, physical and emotional self-harm.

Physical self-harm

Types of physical self-harm can include:

  • Cutting
  • Scratching
  • Biting
  • Bruising
  • Burning
  • Picking
  • Pulling out hair
  • Overdosing on medication
  • Punching or kicking hard objects or walls

Emotional self-harm

Types of emotional self-harm can include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • No motivation
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Becoming withdrawn or isolated

Why does self-harm happen?

Self-harming typically has an underlying reason. For many foster children, negative experiences from their past or mental health conditions could impact why a young person may want to hurt themselves physically. Over time, self-harm can develop into a habit. Even if a child appears happy or seems to have overcome their issues, they may still be self-harming as a way of controlling their emotions to ensure their negative feelings do not return. Reasons why a child may self-harm can include:

  • To manage emotions
  • A form of distraction from emotions
  • Expressing emotions
  • Regaining control over emotions, mind and body
  • Blaming themselves
  • Punishing themselves
  • Bullying
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sexuality
  • Gender identity
  • Body image issues

How to spot the signs

Though some signs of self-harming may be visible in the form of scars and marks, it can be difficult to know when your foster child is hurting themselves. As self-harming isn’t usually done for attention, children who self-harm are more likely to cover-up any evidence. This makes spotting the signs difficult to point out. Below are some signs to be aware of if you suspect your child may be self-harming:

  • Unexplained cuts, bruises, burns, bald patches or marks
  • Covering up their body (particularly forearms) and avoiding activities such as swimming or PE
  • Lack of energy or motivation or tiredness
  • Withdrawing or isolation from family or friends
  • Mood swings
  • Avoiding things they usually would enjoy
  • Change in physical appearance
  • Shift in their routine (sleeping less or more)
  • Becoming shaky, clumsy or accident prone
  • Using drugs or alcohol

How can you help?

If you think your foster child is self-harming, it can be very difficult to know what to do. You may feel upset, confused or even angry, and wonder how you missed the signs. Similarly, if you only suspect that they’re harming themselves, you may not know how to approach them and offer the kind of help and support they need.

Below, we’ve listed some things that can help your child cope with self-harm, as well as the resources we’d recommend for additional help and advice.

If you suspect your child may be self-harming, you may find it difficult to approach the situation and offer the help and support they need. Whilst your social worker will be on-hand to offer you any support and guidance you may need, there are other ways you can help your foster child such as:

Get to the root of the problem – there is always an underlying issue as to why a child may self-harm. Before approaching your child about their behaviour, remind yourself that it is a way for them to cope with negative emotions and hard times.

Listen – whilst you may want to ask your foster child multiple questions after finding out they are self-harming; remember they need to be able to come to you in their own time. When they are ready to talk, be ready to listen.

Communicate – self-harming is a difficult topic for both you and your foster child. Keeping an open line of communication with your child, without judgment, will enable them to come to you in their own time.

Maintain a routine – keeping boundaries and a normal routine is particularly important when your child is self-harming. Anything out of the ordinary can cause further unrest and can disrupt their emotions further.

Remain neutral – whether you suspect your child is self-harming or you’ve found out your child is self-harming; you may want to begin policing their behaviour. However, you should avoid intervening or forcing them to stop, as it could escalate the situation and, ultimately, make it worse.

Get professional help – we recommend seeking professional help for both you and your foster child. There are many helpful services available which we have listed below.

Help and resources





Next Steps

At Foster Care UK, our social workers provide additional support to our foster carers as well as self-harm training. In some cases, children can be referred for our Multi-disciplinary Assessment Treatment & Therapy service (MATTs) if they haven’t already been referred when they arrived in foster care.

Here at Foster Care UK, we understand issues like self-harm can be difficult to navigate. That’s why we provide extensive support and guidance for foster carers at all times. To find out more, get in touch with us today.


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