Ways to Explain Self-Harm Scars to Children

August 29, 2017 Kristen Schou 

There are ways to explain self-harm scars to children that don't stress you out too much. Consider these things when faced with explaining self-harm scars.

There are ways to explain self-harm scars to children, but I haven't always known what to say. When I was in my first year of college I had a job working with children at a daycare. Children are curious by nature and they ask a lot of questions about their surroundings. If something is “out of the norm” they are going to ask questions about it. One night, I wore a dress which showed a few of my scars. I had a small child come up and ask me, “Teacher, what happened to your leg?”

If you are suffering or have suffered from self-harm and have small children around you, you might run into this question once or twice. It might be stressful when they ask these questions. What do you say? How much do you tell them? Here are a few tips that have helped me through this awkward situation.

What to Consider Before Explaining Self-Harm Scars to Children

There are a few things you should keep in mind before you start talking to a child about self-harm. How do you know this child? You are going to be more truthful to a child that you know more than you would with a child at daycare. How old are they? Depending on the age of the child you are going to tell them different information. These are two important things to consider before you respond.

What to Explain to Children About Self-Harm Scars

Depending on the age of the child you might tell them different pieces of information. You might not want to tell a child who is very young about your past. When young children ask about your scars, you can make up a story like:

  • I got attacked by a tiger.
  • I fell into a rose bush.
  • I hugged a porcupine too hard.

Most of the time young children will be satisfied with this answer and move on. Older children are not unintelligent and they know that you did not get attacked by a real tiger. For older children, if you feel comfortable, you can just bend the truth. This could include:

  • I got into an accident.
  • I accidentally hurt myself when I was younger.
  • When I was angry I would take it out on myself.

These are great conversation starters to get the conversation around mental health going with your child.

Explaining Self-Harm Scars to Children Can Lead to Positive Conversations

When children start asking these questions it can be a great segue way to start discussing other areas of mental health with them. When they ask, you can tell them the truth. Talk to them about positive and negative coping skills when they are stressed. This is a great way to build a positive relationship with your children. If you are talking about emotions with them then you seem like a safe person to talk to when they need someone to talk to.

Being Ready to Explain Your Self-Harm Scars With Children

When you talk about self-harm with children make sure you are, personally, ready to start talking about it. Talking about self-harm can be triggering for some. You never know what children are going to ask. You need to be personally ready to start talking openly about your recovery before you can discuss it with children.

I would like to open this post to you. Have you ever been in this situation? How did it go? What did you tell them? Do you have any tips for those of us who want to tell a child? Let me know down in the comments.

APA Reference
Schou , K. (2017, August 29). Ways to Explain Self-Harm Scars to Children, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Author: Kristen Schou 

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Chloe Bright
August, 8 2023 at 12:41 pm

My son is 3, and he’s asked a couple times. At the moment I’ve told him they’re birth marks, due to his age.
I am scared for the future, as I’m unsure what to say.

June, 16 2023 at 12:34 pm

I work with kids during the summer at a day camp. I work during the summer in a warmer climate (upper 90s (f) some years) I have them on both my left arm and left thigh. I don’t worry about the ones on my thigh because they are covered by my shorts, but the one on my arms worry me. None of the kids have asked me about them so far, (first week of summer) but my planned response is “I got these while I was sick, but I’m all better now.” I always like to bring a sweatshirt with me and try not to take it off, but I’d I do, I like to drape it over my forearm. If I can’t, I like to wear lighter long sleeve shirts (blouses, flannels that stuff) The kids make me a lot of rainbow looms so I also wear them on my left wrist. I think my co workers might have noticed but thankfully they haven’t asked me about them.

December, 28 2021 at 1:18 am

I haven’t run into this situation yet but I know getting older and being around more children I inevitably will. This article definitely helped a lot just to know that there are people who understand and want to help those of us with this stigmatized issue. Children are very impressionable and I worry about kids who may look up to me and think this behavior is an okay way to handle difficult emotions.
I feel as though children (4 and older) can tell when you’re lying and will continue to ask if you do, but if you tell them the truth the first time they ask, they probably won’t ask again until their adolescence or teens. I’ll probably try my best to tell them the truth in a way that lets them know that I don’t think it was okay that I did this and I don’t ever want anyone to do something like this. Maybe something along the lines of, “when I was young I was hurting a lot and I’m not proud of it but I hurt myself and I really wish I didn’t. I wish I handled my emotions better and I hope everyone learns healthy ways to cope with their sad or angry/hurt/painful feelings.”
If they are toddlers and just starting to learn language they’ll probably just point it out and won’t ask why, to which I’ll say “I know ouchie, but it’s all better now.”
Thank you so much for this article and a lot of these comments. This post has helped me tremendously. I honestly feel like a piece of me has healed a bit inside. To anyone reading this please know that you are loved and you are not alone. All the best

Kit W.
September, 8 2021 at 3:17 pm

I work as a swimming teacher, so naturally this is come up with some students. The younger years accept that I wasnt kicking my legs fast enough and an octopus got me, but the older ones dont believe that anymore. Its really hard because I dont want to introduce them to a topic their parents dont want brought up, it could become a safeguarding issue for me. Ive deflected most of the time, but this was really helpful- thankyou! -Kit

August, 24 2021 at 10:49 pm

My 9year old has noticed my wrist scars. I deflected answering because when my girls have noticed when younger I said I’d scratched it on something but I wasn’t sure now as I wondered if I should adjust my answer now. With my eldest, she is only 10, and she his not going well emotionally. She wanted to ‘die’ last year due to peers. But she is also prone to mimicking (she is possibly on the spectrum). I would hate to explain it to her and cause her to use the idea. She already pulls out her hair and eyelashes and that’s not even when she’s anxious, just relaxed. My 9 year old stressed a lot. I think I’ll wait till they’re a bit older to explain more.

January, 26 2023 at 4:13 am

Hi! Ik this post is over a year old! But as a kid who grew up with a mom who self harmed and never explained it. I started self harming myself at age 12 because i knew my friends did it and i saw my moms scars that she would give vague and confusing answers about. So I thought if my mom coped like this and my firends cope like this i should too. But if my mom had really sat me down and told me when i was younger that ‘if i ever had those feelings to come to her first and not to take it out on myself’ i think my path may have been different. Just know she will see it other places and might make the connection to you doing it herself if you dont explain how wrong it is. But obviously i dont know your family or your child its just my best advice as someone who was in a similar situation as her!

January, 31 2023 at 3:51 pm

Hi Eve,
I'm sorry you went through all that. "What ifs" can lead us down some pretty hard roads, but I do agree that it may have been better if your mom had talked to you as you wish she had. That being said, disclosing your SH story can be so difficult and so scary, and I can only imagine what it would be like as a parent to try and talk about that stuff with your child. So I hope you can forgive her if she felt unable to do so; the important thing is that you realize now that SH doesn't help and that you are able to move forward and heal. And perhaps you can still have that talk with her sometime, if you want to--just try not to approach it judgmentally. "I wish we'd been able to talk about this before, and I'd like to start now" or something like that.
I hop that helps. Take care!

August, 24 2021 at 6:06 pm

Ummmmmm "When I was angry I would take it out on myself." and lie to them? This is bad advice

January, 26 2023 at 4:17 am

This is similar to what my mom told me about hers and i started self harming at age 12. I saw friends doing it and i knew my mom did it so why not right? I think kids need to have it explained how wrong this is and be taught good healthy coping mechanisms. I like the lies for toddlers tho ie: ‘i had a really mean cat’ or ‘i fell in a rose bush’. But once they are able to understand right from wrong i think thats when to start introducing lightly that self harm is wrong and mom made a mistake as a kid because she didnt know better.

January, 31 2023 at 3:47 pm

Hi Eve,
I'm not the original author of this post, but wanted to make sure you got a reply anyway. I do agree with you that in most cases, if the child is old enough to understand these concepts, it's best to impress upon them that SH is not a healthy outlet--and, as you said, it's equally important to show them some coping mechanisms that ARE good. Parents lead by example whether they mean to or not; better to explain and educate than lie if you can help it. That being said, I also agree that toddlers are a bit too young to understand, and that little white lies may do the most good until they're old enough to know the truth.
Not only can explaining scars (and why SH isn't a good coping mechanism) hopefully prevent kids from making the same mistakes, but it also lets them know that if they DO feel like they need to hurt themselves, there's someone in their life they can talk to who really will understand how they feel. The key is to present the issue without judgment--saying "I felt like I needed to hurt myself to feel better, but I was mistaken" and NOT "I must have been crazy to hurt myself like that."
Thanks so much for your comment. Take care!

March, 26 2021 at 12:11 pm

I think honesty is important, especially with children. Children are smarter than we adults give them credit for. Lying will only create mistrust.
Explaining that self harm to a child, let’s say age 9 and smart:
When I was young I didn’t know how to express my emotions and I would get really sad or mad at myself and I would take it out on myself. I was a bully to myself. I hurt myself when I didn’t understand what I was feeling or when I didn’t know how to ask others for help. But with the right help, with a counselor, I was able to learn how to identify my own emotions and I learned how to express my emotions and most importantly, I learned to ask for help when I was upset or sad. I healed because I asked for help when I needed it. Self harm Scars are the same as battle wounds , a battle with yourself. I’ve won because I am brave and I ask for help.

October, 16 2020 at 11:26 pm

I started self harming in year 7 (12 years old), it started mild but over the years it became life threatening. I was in and out of hospitals for stiches almost every night of the week. At 15 my mother was told to start planning a funeral for me because I was told at the rate I was going I will not make it to 16. My little brother 7 at the time asked my mother what my scars were from. She told him that I hurt myself. It made him very very upset and he started trying to harm himself too. I saw that and I stopped self harming. My mother became an alcoholic so I stood up and became a mother figure for my brother. One night I got him out of the bath and I was putting him to bed. I wasn’t wearing long sleeves because my scars were faiding. Then my brother pointed at my arm and asked “what happened”, and I decided to tell him “the angels tried taking me home, but I fought, and they ended up hurting me but I won”, now I’m 16, and last week he said to me “I’m glad the angels didn’t win”. Now he also saw someone down the street with scars, he pointed at them and told me “she won too!! Can I give her a hug”, I walked up to the stranger and just started a conversation. I told the woman that my brother wants to give her a hug. I explained that I am a survivor too, and what I told him about what my scars are from.
She smiled so much and got a hug from my brother. My biggest fear is when I have children what will I tell them? Then I realised I don’t wanna lie to them and make up some story. So I will tell them about how the angels tried taking me home but I wasn’t ready. Then when they become older I’ll explain to them why I said that. Which is:
Life became so hard so I decided I wanted to go to heaven. The angels kept trying to take me. But I survived, I decided heaven can wait.

October, 20 2020 at 7:43 pm

Hi Ebony,
Thank you for sharing this story. I think your way of choosing to explain your self-harm is beautiful and gentle, and I am glad that you have found a way to share this truth with your brother and with other younger folk without overwhelming or frightening them. I hope others can take some inspiration and hope from your post!
Take care,

Carol Payne
May, 23 2020 at 8:49 am

I looked up this subject because I just found out my granddaughter, 16, burned and cut herself for a period of time. No new cuts or burns but she’s been hiding them from the family. I worry about her 7, 9 and 10 year old cousins who adore her. They’re all very sweet and empathetic and sensitive and I worry they’ll be devastated by knowing she burned and cut herself. This post was helpful. I’ll share it with the adults in the family.

May, 27 2020 at 8:03 pm

Hi Carol,
While I'm not the author of this particular post, I am so glad that you found it helpful and that you think other members of your family will, too. I'm sorry to hear about your granddaughter, and that you are worried about her cousins, but I also think it is wonderful that she has so many people like you and her cousins who care for her so deeply. I hope that your conversations with them go well, and that your granddaughter is able to continue healing and putting her history of self-harm behind her, one day at a time. She, too, is welcome to read and comment here on HealthyPlace if she finds it helpful to do so.
Thank you again for your comment! Here are some more self-harm resources you can check out if you'd like to learn more about the subject:

Sean Mc Call
October, 24 2019 at 8:21 am

Hiya, i self harm and my son who is 10 has seen my scars which are fresh and bloody still, i know he will ask me and am thinking to tell him the whole truth?
He is a very intelligent 10 year old exceeding at school, am i right or wrong in thinking telling him will lead him into being able to help me ?

January, 24 2020 at 11:55 am

It is not the responsibility of your 10-year-old to help you that is a weight that he is not strong enough to carry nor should he be

June, 13 2019 at 3:11 pm

I started "cutting" when I was 13. It was completely unheard of at that time. My best friend saw a cut on my arm and thought it was a suicide attempt. I half-heartedly agreed, because although I hadn't been planning on killing myself, I didn't really know or understand what I had been doing. It wasn't until years later that I read a magazine article that called it self mutilation, and I realized that what they were describing was exactly what I had been doing.
I'm 35 now and less than a week ago, my 20 month old niece pointed to a scar on my arm and said "uh oh, Katie! Ouch!". I was completely taken aback and didn't know what to say. I realize that she is completely not ready to hear about issues like self injury and right now I can probably just say " yes, auntie katie got a boo boo, but it's getting better now.". The challenge is going to be as she gets older, trying to discern when is the right time to start talking about the truth.
Thank you for your article. It gives me some more concrete things to think about before that conversation happens.

August, 16 2018 at 10:00 am

My son is 9 now. I have so many scars all over my body. I don’t hide them anymore. When he was small, I would tell him silly things like a tiger got me. Periodically, he asks more as he grows. We have an honestly policy that goes both ways. I promise to tell him everything as long as it’s age appropriate. I’m wondering if soon will be that time and we can have a dialogue about better ways to deal with feelings and tools we can use that I didn’t have when I was younger.

July, 3 2018 at 1:54 am

I have scars and have been wondering how to explain to my kids because I have to hide them and during the summer I cannot wear shorts above the knee or sleeveless t shirts. I'm wondering g if they would be angry at me for what I've done.

Pepper McGowan
April, 4 2018 at 11:43 pm

I am so happy to see this article. I am 43. I started self harm in 7th grade in 1987 and it continued into my early 20s. I thought I was a freak. No one else did THIS. But at age 25 in the ER for a sprain, the nurse gently asked if I was a "cutter" . Never heard of it. She gave me some pamphlets and seeing the age of my oldest scars, hugged me and said "look online. You thought you were the only one? I'm so sorry. You were carrying a heavy secret AND the pain that incited cutting. Look at the links. You're not alone."
I am grateful for the article. I was a member of my own little tribe that didn't want to be bound by this shared compulsion. But I wasn't solo. A few years after, self harm became almost a fashion accessory for the way people posted pics online. And I was disheartened to see teens fight over the classifications of emo and goth etc by who bleeds. When I was a kid/preteen I would have been grateful for a role model/camp counselor/ older cousin who was able to talk candidly about the topic. In hindsight, I had 3 - one of each but we didn't get a dialogue hoping
going until I started to write a piece on recovery and self injury.. Thanks. Very very much for the article.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 6 2019 at 2:33 pm

Thank you for this very detailed account, i can't explain why, its so personal and touching, it brought me to tears. I too suffered from self harm, glad this angel crossed your path. ♡

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

December, 4 2019 at 1:50 am

Thanks for this. I thought I was the only middle-aged person who still engaged in such behavior. You're certainly not alone, and I have tried to start bearing mine openly to the world but in front of my daughter is another issue...Thanks for helping me feel like less of a freak...most articles are about teenagers.

Beva Dudiak
January, 27 2018 at 5:48 am

Not having the internet or much other support back when my self harm scars were fresh, I was left to tell my young cousin about them using my own imagination. I told her I was accident prone. And that I had gotten this set of scars from a rosebush and that one from reaching into a soapy dishpan and hitting a knife etc. She was fascinated. So much so that she led me to her mother and started to tell my aunt how I had gotten each scar. I was horrified. But my aunt didn't give me away. She went along with the stories. I'm curious now to know at what point my cousin figured out the truth. I should ask her some time.

Lizanne Corbit
August, 29 2017 at 1:39 pm

I think this is a very brave read. Not many people would be willing to broach this topic with children. Children have a way of very innocently calling us out on things that we oftentimes don't want to be open out, but they can actually provide a very supportive base for us to share. I think your suggestions for age-appropriate responses, and questions to ask yourself about your relationship with the child is incredibly helpful.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

August, 31 2017 at 5:07 am

I am so happy you enjoyed my article and the information in it. I totally agree that children can be a great support base for individuals suffering with a mental health condition. Thank you for the comment!

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