This is a very sensitive topic.
I want to be sure to say that every situation, when it comes to self injury or self harm is unique. There are different reasons, levels of severity, thought processes, length of struggle, and histories that all need to be taken into consideration when addressing this topic. Let me start off right away by saying if you have just discovered your child is self-harming or he/she has been self-harming and you are confused, scared, and/or unsure of what to do, please sign up for a free 20 minute consultation now at:
Your child surely needs help and support, but so do you mom and dad!
Parents surely have a variety of emotional responses to finding out their children are self-harming; and they often evolve over time. In the beginning there is likely a lot of fear and anxiety; feeling like you have to watch their every move… maybe afraid to get them upset… “helicopter” tendencies… guilt… fears of suicide. If these self harming behaviors continue for a long period of time, emotions often turn to frustration, confusion, anger, annoyance, and loss of hope/giving up. If you are feeling any of these things… it is completely normal.
But what is the best way to respond to your child when they are engaging in self-harming behaviors? First let me say that self-harming behaviors and suicide attempts or rehearsals are NOT the same thing. If your child is attempting suicide or rehearsing ways to end their life, this requires immediate assessment and care. Self-harming behaviors are typically not suicide attempts, but rather ways to cope with living. There may be thoughts of wanting to die or feeling unworthy to live or numbness that accompany self-harm; but instead of it being a means of suicide, it is more a form of language. A way to express one’s self in a way that words cannot capture.
I first became interested in the concept of self-harm back when it started to surface in society… in my college days. I did my capstone project on the subject and the research we did ended up getting published by the American Counseling Association and my professor and I were able to go do a poster presentation at an ACA conference (lucky for me, it was in Hawaii!!). You can read that article HERE (for the record… my last name was Losee in those days!).
As I continued on in my education and then later in my professional career, self-harm was a continued issue that would surface for my clients. I don’t believe this is something that will be going away any time soon, and in a way some people are glamorizing self-harm on the internet and many kids are encouraged to try it out. Some engage in self-harm because their friend is and they want to know how it feels or try to understand them… unfortunately, this can turn into a destructive habit for some of these empathic kids.
So what can you do? This is a BIG topic and I could not cover all of it in a blog post… but I will share 3 tips that I think are most important.
#1 Do not ask to see your child’s marks.
I know this may seem odd because you want to know the severity of their injuries, but telling your child to show you allows them to continually use self-harm as a means of language (this was a BIG theme discussed in the research I conducted). Instead of focusing on the marks, cuts, burns, bruises, etc… encourage your child to use words to describe why they chose self-harm. Ask what the cuts represent. Deficit in emotional expression is likely a cause for your child’s self-harming behavior, so giving them an opportunity to practice expressing themselves is so important to their healing process. This also allows you to have a discussion with them; building trust and understanding them, instead of lecturing them about things they should not do.
#2 Ask them about suicide.
Usually self-harming is not a suicidal gesture… but there is always a chance that it is or that your child could make a grave mistake and end up doing something impulsive and taking their life… PLUS you as a parent are likely fearful that they are indeed suicidal.>>SO JUST ASK<<. Don’t be discreet, don’t beat around the bush. But also, don’t ask in a panicked, critical, or emotional state. You can ask your child if they are having thought of suicide or killing him/her self. This will not put the idea in their head. You will not be encouraging them to take their life. No one says, “You know, I wasn’t thinking about killing myself… but now that you mention it, that sounds like a great idea.” Be sure to watch their body language when responding to you. You know your child best. If you suspect they are not being truthful and you think an assessment is needed, go for it. If you are not sure if your child’s behavior is self-harm or a suicide attempt/rehearsal, feel free to call the emergency room or 911 to get their immediate opinion. You can also schedule a free online session with me if you do not believe this to be presently life threatening.
#3 Don’t try to handle this on your own.
Not seeking help for your child could communicate to them that you are embarrassed of them or don’t care. In the research I conducted, participants said that their counselor/therapist was the factor that helped them the most in their struggle. If your child is resistant or you are also feeling overwhelmed, please get care for yourself as well. Unloading your emotions on your emotionally fragile child will not help… and let’s be honest… it will happen if you don’t get support. You need to take care of yourself as well. And if your child is resisting counseling or therapy and they see you are seeking it out, you are being a great example to them and could help them change their mind by leading through example.
I would be more than happy to work with you and/or your child in this area. Feel free to schedule a free 20 minute online consultation today for you and/or your child. I am happy to give you and your child each a free consult.