The organization Self-Injury Support has published it's April e-bulletin and featured "9 Facts I Wish I'd Known When I Discovered My Son was Cutting." Follow the links below to check out their site and e-bulletin.
Are you Afraid that your Child will be a Killer?
By Theresa Larsen, author of Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother
I was volunteering at a mental health event recently, talking to people and handing out leaflets. A woman approached the booth and I explained the art project we were promoting and its focus on mental illness. She then told me about her twenty-four year old son, who was experiencing anger, isolative tendencies, and psychosis.
The mother looked at me and said, “I am afraid my son will do a Sandy Hook.”
My eyes widened and my pulse quickened, as I racked my brain for a helpful response to her statement. The first thought that popped into my head was, I’m so glad this is not me. I know this thought was selfish and insensitive, but it was honest. After struggling with my son’s illness for many years, I was relieved that he was finally on a positive path.
The mother’s words reminded me of the book by Liza Long called, The Price of Silence. In her book Liza tells the readers her first thought when she heard about the Sandy Hook shooting, “What if that’s my son someday?” Liza’s words were fresh in my mind, because I had recently stumbled across her writing and like so many other mothers I connected with the words she wrote.
On Tuesday, March 6, 2012 a text message came through on my phone from my then fifteen year old daughter.
“Mom I’m scared, the school is on lock-down. I have been on the floor in the library for almost an hour. Someone has been shot.”
My first reaction to this message was panic and fear, and I did not think of anything else until my daughter was safely in the car. But as I drove home and listened to her describe how her Spanish teacher had brought an AK-47 into school and killed the principal and then himself, my thoughts drifted to her brother who had been coping with serious mental illness and self-harm for years and who, at that moment, was in a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt.
My thoughts on that day were similar to Liza Long’s, What if my son kills someone one day? It wasn’t the first time I had wondered this, but it was the first time that it had bubbled to the surface. And here I was more than three years later being confronted with this same thought and still I did not have an answer.
The mother at the mental health event was someone I had never met, yet she was so desperate for help that she uttered her fears to a complete stranger. Maybe it was easier to say this to a stranger than to someone she knew. She was clearly looking for guidance.
I empathized with her worry and loneliness. I encouraged her to communicate with her son, to convince him to see a counselor or go to a support group. I handed her a leaflet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness that provided information about programs and groups in her area, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. I felt like I was giving her a metaphoric pat on the back and sending her away.
What do we have to offer this mother?
There has been a lot of movement to reduce stigma, obtain support, and acquire medical care for those with mental illness, but there is still a great deal of work left to do. We shouldn’t have to wait until our youth commit crimes in order for them to receive the help they so desperately need.
Continue to talk about mental illness, push for medical treatment and appropriate care--fight for the rights you and your children deserve.
Do not think this does not affect you; it affects everyone, because children who have a mental illness are my children, they are your children, they are the nation’s children, and they need everyone’s help.
As a parent I wanted to protect my child from all the bad things that might come into his life, but how could I protect him from himself? I discovered my son’s self-injurious behavior when he was fourteen. I knew practically nothing about self-harm then, but as the years went on I learned a great deal.
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.
I have been asked to do some guest blog posts recently. Here is one I did for 1 in 5 minds. Please follow the link to read it.
Theresa Larsen, author of "Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother," shares her perspective and personal insight in this special guest blog post titled "Why are We Afraid to Talk About Mental Illness?" Thank you Theresa Larsen!
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