By Susie Lee, ACMHC
Discovering that your child is self-harming can induce many emotions in parents, from fear, anger, and confusion, to panic, betrayal, and disgust. You want to help them as much as possible, but also may not understand how you can be of help to them. Gaining a greater understanding about self harm and what it includes can be very beneficial. Self harming can include a wide range of behaviors, including cutting, burning, biting, scratching, purposefully injuring themselves, poisoning, overdosing, restricting food, and many others. When people injure themselves, they’re looking for self control that they feel is lacking in their lives. It is a way for them to cope with their emotions that feel out of control, channel their frustration, and let off steam. The urge to self-harm can become increasingly hard to resist, even becoming addictive with time. With the right help and support, you can help your child work through this behavior to become a healthier, happier version of themselves, and possibly improve your relationship with them in the process. Here are five tips for parents who discover their child is self harming.
Manage your own emotional response.
Parents who discover their teens are self harming will experience a wide variety of emotions, all of which are normal. As hard as it might be, it’s important as the parent to put your own feelings to one side as you concentrate on the reasons behind your child’s self harm. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t attend to your own feelings, but that you set a good example by finding proper outlets and people to talk to about your feelings, rather then placing them on your child. Try to process your own feelings and remain understanding and validating of your teen. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your teen, along with the rest of your family. You can’t be emotionally available if you don’t manage your own response.
Validate their feelings.
Self injury is a coping strategy, not the problem itself. Instead of focusing on the behavior, focus on the underlying issues that your teen is dealing with. Teens have difficulty identifying and expressing their emotions verbally, so they may not be able to express everything their feeling, but the key is to open up communication and build trust so your child can talk to you about these underlying issues when they are able. Don’t minimize the problem or over react, as this will likely cause your teen to hide their behavior and not be open about what’s going on for them. Remember, your teen is in a lot of emotional pain that they are unable to express directly, let them know you’re there for them, care for them and want to help.
Have appropriate expectations for your teen.
It will take time and work to move through self harming behavior and replace it with healthy coping skills, be encouraging and helpful to your teen, but don’t expect them to improve within a certain time frame. Do what you can to help them manage their stress and recognize when things need to be let go.
Try not to over protect or punish your teen for their self harm behavior.
Often as a parent, our first response when we feel fear for our children’s safety, our first response is to try and fix it. Sometimes this means we over protect, seek to control, or inadvertently punish our teens for their self harm. Instead, we want to aim to express our concern and love for them without blaming them or making them feel guilty for their behavior. Validate that they are experiencing difficult emotions and that you want to be helpful to them. Encourage them to talk about what has been going on for them with you or another trusted adult. Power struggles rarely, if ever, work, so try to avoid them all together.
Don’t expect to fix the problem yourself, be available to listen, but recognize that sometimes they’re going to need more help.
Sometimes teens are more willing to be open with a professional than they will be with their parents. Usually this is not because their parents are doing anything wrong, but rather due to fear of disappointing their parents or how their parents will react. This doesn’t mean that you would react in a negative manner or be disappointed, but rather that the teen has created this reality in their mind, often due to seeing how other parents react to their children and media portrayals of how parents react. Sometimes therapy can provide a place for them to talk without fear of how someone will react, as well as be a place for mediation between parents and their teens.