Mental health and wellbeing expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises teachers and school staff on what not to do if they are worried that a child is self-harming or if a student discloses to them

School staff often ask me what they should and shouldn’t say if a pupil talks to them about their self-harm. There is often a concern that in saying or doing the wrong thing we might make things worse. As such, I have listed some common pitfalls to avoid and outlined some more positive approaches.

Don’t judge

Many young people don’t open up about their self-harming behaviours because they’re worried that they will be judged as crazy or attention-seeking. This fear of judgement can act as a huge barrier to help-seeking and problem-sharing and being met with a judgemental attitude will result in the conversation being cut short. Instead, give the pupil the opportunity to explain their thoughts, feelings and behaviours while you listen without assumptions or judgement.

Don’t tell them to stop

Stopping the cycle of self-harm usually takes some time and can only happen once a young person has learnt to manage their thoughts and feelings in a different way.

Asking them to stop may make the pupil feel misunderstood, or drive them to hide their behaviour in future.

Instead of asking the pupil to stop outright, acknowledge that this will take a little time and won’t be easy, and offer your help in finding the support and strategies they need in order to develop healthier means of coping.

Don’t panic

Learning that a young person has been harming themselves can be very distressing, but the most helpful thing you can do is to stay calm and listen. This can take your very best acting skills as you may be upset, angry or scared.

But remember, this is about the pupil not about you – and a calm, measured, supportive response sets the tone for the difficult next steps the pupil will take in beginning to address their issues.

Don’t be dismissive

The severity of self-harm does not necessarily indicate the severity of the accompanying emotional distress. If a young person has trusted you enough to share their injuries with you, no matter how superficial, their concerns warrant your attention.

Look past the injuries and encourage them to open up by asking open questions and giving them plenty of time and space to share their thoughts and feelings.

Don’t make assumptions

No matter how well you think you know a pupil and their situation, never assume that you understand the reasons behind their self-harm. Let them tell their own story, in their own time.

This might not happen coherently, quickly or in your first conversation – but only by giving a pupil the space and time to explain their thoughts, feelings and behaviours can we begin to genuinely understand what is going on with them, and how best they might be supported.


If a pupil chooses to confide in you, it says a lot about how much they respect and trust you. Calm, quiet listening with a few questions to prompt them, before discussing next steps in order to ensure they are appropriately supported is ideal. And for the record, these conversations never feel easy, especially if it is with a pupil you have grown to know.

If for any reason you feel unable to support, taking the pupil to another member of staff who feels better able to support is the next best thing.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith directs the children, young people and schools programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit and email For more information on the charity, visit


Dr Pooky Knightsmith’s recent book, Can I tell you about self-harm?, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing. Visit

Mental health advice

Dr Pooky Knightsmith provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to If there are specific issues you would like to see addressed, email or tweet @PookyH