When my children were young I read parenting books, the ones that explained how to train your child to sleep through the night and offered strategies for dealing with temper tantrums. When my children entered adolescence I studied parenting books that demonstrated how to talk so they would listen and how to cope with angry outbursts while staying calm and maintaining my sanity. When my son started self-harming I couldn’t find parenting books that provided me with skills, practical information, and therapeutic tools to help him. I felt frustrated, alone, and helpless.
As a parent I wanted to protect my child, but I didn’t know how to protect him from himself. I discovered that very few people could provide me with the information I was seeking. It took many years of working with professionals to understand my son’s inner turmoil and help him move in a positive direction.
Here are 11 tips that I discovered along the way to help any parent going through a similar situation.
- Do not ask why. When someone self-harms, they don’t have words to describe their pain. The self-harm is an outward display of their inner emotions. Asking why will not give you the explanation you are looking for. Your child doesn’t have the answer, and this line of questioning will only make him or her feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Instead, ask if there is anything you can do to help him or her feel better.
- Talk to your child about first aid. By inquiring if bandages, antibiotic ointment, or any other type of first aid is needed you are starting a dialogue. This may open up an opportunity for your child to show you more of their injuries or tell you something about their pain. It is important that your child knows that they should wash their wounds with soap and water and continue to keep them clean to avoid an infection. Explain the signs of an infection and the importance of seeking medical attention if needed.
- Ask if he or she is safe or can keep him- or herself safe. If your child has hurt him- or herself, then they are in emotional as well as physical pain. Self-harm usually isn’t a suicide attempt, but suicidal thoughts can accompany the self-harm. There is a strong link between previous self-harm and suicide. Do not ignore it. Speak to a professional if suicidal thoughts are involved.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Validation is one of the most important elements to learn before parenting any child. You are acknowledging your child’s emotions, not diminishing them. You don’t have to agree with his or her feelings, you just have to be supportive. Everyone deserves to be accepted without judgment. Validation helps your child feel heard, acknowledged, and understood.
- Find a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist. Your child needs to talk to an experienced and competent professional. Do not be afraid to interview them and make sure they are the right fit. Obtain referrals from physicians, friends, or family members.As the caregiver, you need to talk to someone just as much as your child does. Take time to nurture yourself.
- Do not punish your child for self-injurious behavior. Self-harm is not an act of rebellion or attention-seeking behavior. Your child is hurting him- or herself because he or she is in a great deal of emotional pain. Don’t make their pain worse. Love them, nurture them, and listen to them.
- Remove obvious items that can be used for self-injury. If your child has to go to the effort of finding something to self-harm, rather than grabbing a knife from the kitchen drawer, it may give him or her time to think about what he or she is doing and change his or her mind. Lock sharp items away, take them with you or hide them, but don’t leave them out for easy access.
- Research self-harm and healthy coping skills. This is a time when you have a lot of questions. There are many helpful sites about self-injury on the Internet.Learn about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This type of therapy combines standard psychotherapy with skills training. The patients learn healthy coping skills to combat self-harm triggers. DBT works best if the parent also learns about the therapeutic method, so he or she can be supportive and encouraging.
- Do not minimize self-harm. When a child self-harms on a regular basis, a parent can get into the habit of thinking that this behavior is “not so bad.” This is dangerous; every incident of self-harm is significant and should not be minimized. Remember there are links between self-injury and suicide.
- Be honest, not disappointed. Your child doesn’t want to be in emotional pain or self-harm. Part of the healing process will involve setbacks. Be prepared for these. Never tell your child that you are disappointed in him or her for self-harming. This will only create a barrier in your relationship. Remember to validate. You don’t have to agree, you just have to listen.Honesty can create a bond between you and your child. If you don’t know what to say or do, be truthful and tell your child that you don’t know how to help him or her. They are likely to accept this, because he or she doesn’t know what to do, either.
- Don’t say “but.” But is an invalidating word. For example, if you say “I’m proud of you for telling me that you cut yourself, but next time talk to me before this happens,” the only thing your child will hear is that they weren’t good enough. Instead say, “I’m proud of you for telling me that you cut yourself. How do you feel now?” Have a dialogue and then later ask, “What can we do to help you talk to me if you are having these feelings or urges again?” Your child doesn’t listen to everything you say; make sure everything you say is worth hearing.
Overcoming the addictive hold self-harm has on your child will take time, patience, and effort. Offer your help and guidance. Be the parent your child needs during this difficult time in his or her life.
Young woman in pain photo available from Shutterstock