Learning that your child is engaging in self-harm might be one of the most frightening discoveries you can make as a parent. You would also not be alone.
Across the country, the number of reported episodes of self-inflicted non-suicidal injuries among young people has seen a startling upswing in recent years. Today, data indicates that up to 30% of teenage girls in parts of the United States have intentionally injured themselves without aiming to commit suicide.
Despite these harrowing statistics, what is within any parent’s control is how they respond, build understanding and show support for their child who is exhibiting self-harm or self-injuring behavior. For parents looking for concrete next steps, here are seven pieces of advice:
Respond – Don’t React!
When you find out that your child is engaging in self-harm it is very common to have an intense reaction that stems from fear and ultimately leads you to act out with behaviors that are not effective. Instead, it is important to respond instead of react in order to avoid intensifying any feelings of shame, guilt or fear that may be associated with the behavior.
What do we mean by this? Think of it as a shift in approach. When you respond to actions (versus reacting), you allow yourself to take a step back from the situation and figure out the best way of working with your child to understand, and ultimately lessen, the frequency of the self-harming behavior.
Build Your Understanding: Learn Why People Self-Harm
It is important to become educated on the many different reasons why someone may self-harm. Many parents will go straight to asking their child directly, “Why are you doing this?” in an attempt to understand and process what’s going on. However, this question can be overwhelming, confrontational and too complex for your child to answer, particularly early on. In fact, this line of questioning can, unintentionally, lead to feelings of shame.
Instead, it’s important to recognize that understanding why your child is self-harming may be a process; one that takes time for him or her to fully comprehend and then to share with you and explain.
Ultimately, the goal for parents should be to build a general understanding of self-harm and the difference between self-harm and attempts at suicide so that they can find more meaningful ways to help. As an example, a teenager may be in psychological distress and find that translating that into physical pain makes it go away. As you may know, many episodes of cutting or scraping the skin until bleeding, or head-banging are not suicide attempts at all, but an attempt to seek relief for intolerable feelings or as a way of processing trauma. Reasons can also be very complex; sometimes people self-harm in the hopes that someone will notice how much they are suffering and do something about it, yet when somebody actually does notice, the person self-harming will often feel exposed and ashamed, lie about the cause, and then self-harm only in areas covered by clothing.
By understanding the many nuances and layers of meaning behind self-harm, you’ll be less likely to assume, jump to conclusions, and, importantly, be better equipped at helping your child move forward.
Validate Your Child’s Feelings!
You do not have to have had the experience to be able to help! You also do not need to agree with the perspectives and beliefs which caused your child to turn to self-harm to be of help. However, no matter what, it is important to actively listen to your child and validate his or her feelings. Children have a right to feel what they’re feeling, even if you are upset by their response to that feeling. What they may be going through may not seem so bad to you, but to them, it can be earth-shattering.
When children feel that they can be fully heard without judgment or fear of sounding dramatic, it will allow them to reach out to others for support when yearning for relief, rather than engaging in self-injuring behaviors. This is a path to stopping the behavior, by replacing it with a healthier coping technique.
Be Proactive About Objects/Items That Are Being Used for Self-Harm
If you become aware of your child’s self-harm, it is important to dispose of any objects that can be used and to become aware of places where objects such as razors, knives, or lighters may be stored that don’t match up with where they are typically stored.
Some may say that if someone wants to engage in self-harm the person they will find a way to do so, but by getting rid of obvious objects that have been used often or are likely to be used for self-harm, you are creating a space where your child has to pause before automatically returning to the behavior.
Safety First! Having a Self-Harm Safety Plan Is Important
Create a safety plan for your child to go to when he or she feels the urge to self-injure. This is a plan that can be created and agreed upon together or with a therapist and will outline specific steps that you and your child can take before and after self-harm takes place (or if strong feelings persist). This aims to create boundaries, clear expectations of how to stay safe, as well as defined next steps that will and can be taken.
Provide Alternatives To Self-Harm
Create a list of alternative self-harm behaviors to engage in that resonates with your child. It might even be helpful to have a toolbox available that is easily accessible with props and alternative behavior cues ready to go.
Most importantly, know that you don’t have to do this alone. Many family therapy groups and family supports exist to provide you and your child with the guidance that is most helpful. Don’t be afraid to connect with crisis lines, your therapist, or 911, if and when that’s necessary!
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: Brittany Becker, LMHC, is a Senior Therapist at The Dorm, a young adult and adolescent treatment community in New York City and Washington, D.C. that offers partial residential treatment, evidence-based clinical therapies and practical life skills training to help clients in their pursuit of greater independence.
The Dorm is one of the service organizations featured in rtor.org’s Directory of Family-Endorsed Providers.
Photo by Amber Kipp, Unsplash
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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