Finding out your child has been self harming can be one of the most terrifying experiences. The first reaction for most parents is anger. You might ask yourself “Why is this happening?”, “Who is responsible?” You might even blame yourself or your partner. Being confronted with the reality that your child is intentionally hurting herself is a scary one.
Here are a few things to remember:
- Do not yell or punish. Your child may naturally feel that you are “against” her. Oftentimes self harming is used as a tool to self soothe, and we all know that yelling is not at all soothing to someone who is already in pain. Instead offer healthy alternatives, not as a reward, but rather to let your child know you are willing to work with them.
- Respond in a calm way–even though you may feel like screaming. Take a moment (or a few) to compose yourself. Practice some deep breathing. Remember that you are the parent. It is imperative that you remain in control. By remaining calm you are not condoning the behavior. You are coming from a stable place that is more likely to ensure open communication with your child.
- Do not give in. While self harm is often a sign of extreme internal suffering, it can also be used as a tool to get certain “needs” met. You may often hear people referring to self harm as “manipulative”, and while some children may use this as a manipulation, this is not the case for all children who self harm. Whatever the intent, we do not want to reinforce this behavior by giving in.
- Talk openly with your child by starting a conversation. Openly express your feelings. Try using “I feel statements”. For example “I feel scared when you harm yourself, I need you to come to me next time you feel like hurting yourself”. Acknowledge your child’s pain. You can say “I see that you are suffering” or “I am sorry that you felt like you had to do that. What do you need right now?”
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, educate yourself. Do your own research and consult with professionals. Keep your child’s psychiatrist, therapist and primary care doctor up to date on anything concerning your child’s mental health. If you do not have a mental health provider and you are unsure of what to do, take your child to your local crisis center or emergency room to request a mental health evaluation.
Always come from a place of love. Remember that you care about your child, which is why this can be so scary. It is important to remember that you are not alone, and there are many parents out there working through these same issues.
For more reading check out the Adolescent Self Injury Foundation, which has great tips for kids and parents affected by self injury. You can also search for articles on Psych Central and Psychology Today.