If you find out your child is self-harming the shock can be overwhelming. But there is hope…….
What Is The Outcome You Want?
Clearly, what you desperately want is for your child to stop harming themselves. In order to achieve that you will want to shout, to cry, to somehow force your child to not harm themselves again, even in secret.
You need to expand that outcome to “to stop harming herself even in secret; to stop WANTING to harm himself/herself”.
For your child to stop wanting to harm themself is going to take more than your anger and/or tears.
To achieve that goal is a longer road.
With that in mind we are going to lay out what not to do – and be prepared, it will go against every emotion surging through you, but keep your eyes on the outcome you want.
When You Find Out: Five Things Not To Do
When you are told, or find out, that your child is self-harming you need to know that it is almost impossible to force them to not do it again, and the last thing you want is to drive the self-harm underground, to make them hide it from you.
And you do not want to make it harder for them to talk to you about it, or the underlying problems, at a future date.
You want them to trust you enough to come to you if they fall to the temptation to self-harm again, but show them care and attention when they don’t self-harm as well – you don’t want self-harm to also become the only way your child can get your undivided acceptance and attention!
Remember that while your focus is on the physical self-harm, the child’s first priority is to reduce the emotional pain that has driven them to harm themselves. So, hard though it is to drag your focus away from the cuts, you need to focus on the emotions behind the self-harming.
there are a number of things not to do:
- try not to react with anger – and if you do, apologize and explain that the anger is BECAUSE you love them
- don’t threaten them in any way “don’t do that again or else … “
- don’t plead with them “for my sake” … because it will actually increase the emotional anxiety which caused them to harm themselves in the first place. It might work for a while but is more likely to just continue in secret.
- don’t make light of what they are worried about (e.g you may know school bullies will be a thing of the past one day but it isn’t going to help your child deal with them now)
- don’t compare their situation to your own childhood
You want them to trust you enough to come to you if they fall to the temptation to self-harm again
If Your Child Tells You They are Self-harming
If you find out that your child is self harming – either because they have told you or, more likely, you have found out it can feel like a bomb going off in your head.
At that point every fibre in your being is going to go into emergency mode; you are going to want to shout “how could you do this to yourself?” “How could you do this to me/us?”, to threaten, to take charge.
Very few young people who self harm do it as a way to get attention. Mostly, self harm is hidden, and done with a sense of great shame. If they have trusted you enough to tell you, you need to do something entirely counter to your instincts.
Thank them for trusting you.
If You Found Out they Are Self-Harming (ie they didn’t tell you)
A lot of parents find out because they barge into the bedroom or bathroom and catch their child in the act of cutting, or else they see cuts or scars accidentally revealed.
The shock is likely to be overwhelming for you. You are likely to be angry, upset, try to threaten or shame them into not doing it again. But unfortunately self-harm can be addictive and self-harmers can be very resistant to attempts to stop them self-harming without addressing the underlying emotional pain.
But remember they have been doing this in private, hiding it from you, and they didn’t mean for you to find out. They are probably in deep shame already; try not to exacerbate it with your (understandable) upset.
Instead, by a superhuman effort, once you have got your heart-rate and breathing under control, apologize if you have shouted and explain that you are their first priority, that you understand they must be going through a great deal of emotional pain to cause them to do this to themselves, and that you are there for them, you support them, and you want to understand, to work with them to find a way through this and to do whatever you can to help them.
They may refuse to open up to you.
If so, let them know they can talk to other people such as The Samaritans, or Childline. Or ask them if there is another responsible adult they would feel happy speaking to, such as a teacher or school welfare officer.
Let them know they can talk to other people such as The Samaritans, or Childline
What Emotional Pain Are They Going Through? Give Them Undivided Attention
Even although you might know the external circumstances that is causing them pain you need them to talk to you about how those circumstances make them feel.
And you need to tell them you recognize they are in real pain. No matter how minor the circumstances are to you, they are overwhelming to your child, so acknowledge it.
For example, the external circumstances may be exam pressures, but what about those exams are making them feel anxious? Is your child afraid of letting you down? Has he or she decided that without a university degree they will be a failure in life? Are they putting way too much pressure on themself?
Or it may be that she is experiencing pressures you don’t know about; maybe she is being bullied at school, or via social media.
Put time aside. Switch off your own phone. If you have a young family and keep getting interrupted by young children, tell your self-harming child that you are going to get a babysitter, or friend, neighbour or partner to sit with the younger sibling/s while you two have some quality time.
Be Careful About Coming Up with Solutions Without Their Contribution
As a parent you are going to want to solve it. That’s how parents are hard-wired.
But accept you may not be able to solve the external circumstance, and you may not have all the answers. But you can work together with your child to help them put together a coping strategy.
In addition your child may not be clear about what is causing them so much anxiety, and they could make up a single cause just to please you. So if you leap in too soon with a solution you may be solving the wrong problem.
Work With Your Child To Solve The Problem
There might be ways you can help with the external circumstance, such as showing your child how to block or report bullies on social media; but work out the solution WITH them rather than imposing a solution ON them. One of the reasons young people self-harm is because they don’t feel they have any power, so try to empower them in creating a solution together with them.
Help Your Child Develop Strategies to Cope With Anxiety
Be honest; does your teen ever see you overwhelmed with anxiety? Could she/he be modelling you?
If you think that could be the case this might also be time for you to consider asking for professional help yourself. While difficult for you, what greater way of coaching your child into better coping strategies than by leading the way yourself?
Otherwise there might be ways you can help them develop coping strategies to deal with anxiety; whether it is
- breathing exercises,
- putting the smartphone down and doing activities outside,
- working with animals (animals don’t judge you).
Seek Professional Help For Your Child
Let your child know it isn’t because you just want to “fix” the self-harming, or fob them off onto another person. Suggest that they see a professional because you love them and want them to feel safe talking about whatever they are experiencing angst about even if it is about you . That professional counselling is confidential and nothing they say to the counsellor will “get back” to you, and the counsellor is trained not just to stop them harming themselves but to help them deal with the underlying emotions that are overwhelming them and driving them to self-harm.
The TOPAZ Approach
Think of it as TOPAZ, the gem.
Trust: either thank them for trusting you, or earn their trust
Open: get them to open up to you using open questions
Professional: get professional help; try to get them to agree to see a qualified counsellor, or at least to talk in private with the Samaritans or Childline
Attention; give them your full and undivided attention, switch off your phone and get rid of other distractions
Zoom in on the emotional pain which is behind the cutting, rather than just on the cutting itself.
Questions you Can Ask to Open up the Subject
The Samaritans charity have put together a list of questions you could ask:
If your child is reluctant to open up to you, questions you could ask include:
- “Do you have someone you trust [who] you can go to?”
- “If it helps, you can talk to me any time.”
If you have been affected by anything in this article please contact:
In the US:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
National Hopeline Network 1-800-784-2433)
In the UK
The Samaritans 116 123
Childline 0800 1111