Here is what I wish I had known.
1. It's not attention seeking behavior, but rather a cry for help.
I thought cutting was a way to get attention, sort of a rebellious teenage “badge.” I quickly learned that my child was not trying to get attention, he was screaming for help. Self-harm was the only way he knew how to communicate his intense pain. By cutting his own skin he was releasing endorphins into his brain. These endorphins helped to relieve some of his emotional trauma and actually made him feel better. However the feeling doesn’t last, and then the self-harmer is left with physical scars and a feeling of shame.
2. It's not a suicide attempt; it is a coping skill for dealing with intense and overwhelming emotions.
It’s called non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) and is most commonly displayed as cutting or burning. NSSI is used as a coping skill to deal with an emotional overload. My son often said he self-harmed to stop himself from completing suicide. This is a prevalent method used for those dealing with suicidal ideation; it is an attempt to alleviate the feeling of wanting to die. The big difference here is intent. The intent of NSSI is to escape the severe emotional pain, but still remain alive. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work. Many self-harmers have attempted suicide and even intentionally or accidently completed suicide.
One of the other dangers of NSSI is that it can become obsessive, compulsive, and even addictive. Stopping once you have experienced the endorphin release can be difficult and take years to overcome.
3. Talking about self-harm with your child will not put the idea in their head.
If you have a reason to believe your child is thinking about self-harming, talking to them will not give them the idea. Most likely they have heard about it from friends, classmates or online, and if they have already self-harmed discussing it won’t make it worse.
Talking about self-injury is important. Do this privately, with compassion, and without judgment. Chances are your child already feels ashamed. Knowing that they can come to you and talk, without being judged, can make all the difference in what choices they make in the future.
4. Ignoring it will not make it go away.
When things get difficult in our lives we often want to bury our heads in the sand, hoping that the problem will go away. This does not work. Do not ignore your child’s self-injurious behavior! It will not go away on its own. Be the parent you need to need to be for your child. You can help them through this difficult time in their lives and both of you can come out on the other side stronger than you were before.
5. Going to the hospital or doctor every time is not necessary.
This is a time when you need to be objective as a parent. If you think your child’s self-injury is out of control and they are in danger of completing suicide, take them to the hospital. If your child has hurt themselves severely, take them to the hospital. Beyond this there is no right or wrong answer as to when you should take your child to the doctor or the hospital after an episode of self-injury. You must use your best parental judgment and decide what is best for your child in that moment. No two situations are the same and nobody can make that decision for you.
6. Getting angry at your child does not help.
Oh, I have been there. After years of helping my son overcome his desire to cut, when I thought he had “beaten” the addiction, he did it again. Oh yeah, I was angry, but it didn’t help. It didn’t even make me feel better, I only suffered remorse later. How could I be angry at my boy who was suffering from intense pain? Getting angry doesn’t help anyone.
7. Validate your child's feelings instead of trying to fix the problem.
As parents we want to “fix” problems. Often the best thing to do in this situation is to validate their feelings. Validation does not mean you agree with their choice of self-harm, instead it’s telling them that it is okay to have these feelings and that you still love them. This will help your child feel accepted, understood, and heard.
8. Finding the right therapist is imperative.
This is truly a tough one. Can you even find the right therapist? Some people say no, but I do believe there are competent therapists out there. Don’t be afraid to interview them in advance and ask questions about their therapeutic process. A parent alone cannot do everything for their child, especially if that child is unwell. There comes a time when you have to relinquish control and realize that you do not have all the skills needed to help your child move to a healthy place.
9. It's not your fault.
There is a propensity in society to blame the parents for the “faults” of their children. In a few small cases this may be appropriate, but they are few. When it comes to self-harm and mental illness, it’s not your fault. Do not blame yourself. You did not want this for your child, nobody does.
The majority of parents are giving their children the best care and opportunities they can. Do not judge others in their parenting, instead, offer empathy and compassion. You never know when you might find yourself in a similar situation.
Is your child self-harming or do you have experience with self-harm? Please leave a comment or email me privately at the email link above.