Finding out your child has self-harmed might be one of the most challenging things you can go through as a parent. You may feel disappointed, confused, angry, guilty, in denial, or all the above. How could the child you have spent so much time and energy on feel the need to hurt themselves? The answer is complicated and different for each child.
What is Self-harm?
Self-harm is any action that a person takes to cause injury outside of socially acceptable practices and without suicidal intent. Common forms of self-harm include cutting, burning, and hitting/punching self, but they can take many other forms. Tattoos and piercings are not typically considered self-harm.
Reasons for self-harming can be diverse. Some children start self-harming to release overwhelming emotions, while others do it to feel something when they are emotionally numb. Some kids may use it as a form of punishment to themselves, while others do it to feel in control. No matter the reason, self-harm is a maladaptive coping skill. It typically starts as a way to feel better from unwanted feelings and can quickly spiral out of control.
How Can You Help Your Child?
While a million different thoughts and emotions can flood you, how you respond to your child will be important. Here are a few things to remember:
- Validate your child’s feelings.
- A child who is self-harming is a child in distress. Listen to your child before offering your own opinion. Ask them how they are feeling now, what they felt before and after the self-harmed, and what you can do to support them.
- Avoid power struggles.
- Demanding that your child stops self-harming is ineffective. Instead, ask your child what they need.
- Do not punish your child for self-harming.
- Yelling, lecturing, putting down, or taking away items for self-harming can have a negative impact. Speak to your child in a calm, warm voice. If they do not want to talk about the subject, do not force them to.
- Take your child seriously.
- Self-harm is a serious issue and should be taken as such. Avoid chalking it up to a “teenage issue.” Self-harm can have lasting negative impacts, and addressing it early and seriously can help your child in the long run.
- Remember, it is not your fault.
- No one can make someone behave in a certain way. I’m sure there have been times you have wanted your child to do a chore or homework, and they just wouldn’t! During this time, make sure you are taking care of yourself as well. Your self-care is equally as important.
When someone self-harms, it is important to remember that the behavior is serving some sort of function for them. It will be difficult for your child to want to give up self-harming if that need is not being met elsewhere. Listen to what your child is telling you. If you are not sure if what you are saying is the right thing, ask them. They are the experts on their experiences and can tell you what would be helpful. Here at Rice Psychology, we can help support you and your child through this time and give you the tools you need to be successful.
Self-Injury & Recovery Resources (SIRR). The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. (n.d.). http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/resources.html#rAbout