“Self-harm”: Only the word “suicide” creates more anxiety for parents.
Self-harm is a term that’s used when someone harms themselves on purpose, for example by overdosing, hitting, cutting or burning, pulling hair or picking skin. It can also include taking drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol.
It is always a sign that something is wrong.
I can recall many years ago as my own teenage daughter was sitting glumly in class, her friend next to her calmly offered her a sharp compass to help cut herself. Fortunately my daughter refused, but what concerned me was her friend’s casual automatic reaction to emotional pain – just hurt yourself.
Today, I feel little has changed, and in fact I believe there is now an epidemic of young people who self-harm as a way to cope with the pain of life.
For most young people, self-harm is an attempt to control strong emotions and pressures that just seem impossible to tolerate. It’s often related to other emotional issues that need attention. Fortunately, most of the time self-harm is not a suicide attempt.
What can we do as parents if we suspect or discover that our child is self-harming? I believe that communication is the key, and below are some guidelines for my readers:
Talk to Your Child
It can be hard to talk about such a painful and embarrassing topic; you may not know what to say. That’s fine. What you say won’t be as important as how you say it. To open the conversation, you might simply say that you know about the self-harm, and then convey your love and your willingness to help your child.
It will probably be hard for your teen to talk about it too. He or she might feel embarrassed or ashamed, or worried about how you’ll react or what the consequences might be. You can help ease their worries by asking questions and listening to what they have to say, without reacting with punishment or a lecture.
Let your teen know that self-harm is often related to painful experiences or intense pressures, and so ask what difficulties your teen may be facing. They might not be ready to talk about it or even know why they are self-harming. Even if that’s the case, explain that you want to understand and find ways to help.
It’s possible your child will deny any self-harm, get angry or storm off. If that happens, try to stay calm and patient. Don’t give up — find another time to talk and try again.
Ask for Help
It’s important to get help from a mental health professional who can help you understand why your child self-harms, and help them to develop new coping skills.
Therapy can allow teens to tell their stories, put their painful experiences into words, and learn skills to deal with stresses that are part of life. It can also help with identifying any underlying mental health condition that needs treatment. For many teens, self-harm is a clue to possible depression, unresolved loss, compulsive behaviours, or struggles within the family.
Be a Good Role Model
Parents are a key role model in how their child responds to the stress and pressures of life. Notice how you manage your own emotions and how you deal with everyday stress and pressure. Take notice of the words you use in the family, especially when angry. Have a think about your behaviours that you wouldn’t want your teen to imitate.
This is also an opportunity to look after yourself. You might feel hurt or betrayed that your teen didn’t come to you originally. If you are feeling overwhelmed, getting some counselling for yourself can be enormously useful. This is especially true if you self-harmed yourself as a young person.
Learn About Self-Harm
Find out all you can about self-harm, why teens do it, and what can help. Some teens self-harm because of peer pressure while others feel pressured to be perfect and struggle to accept mistakes. Self-harm is sometimes the result of trauma or abusive experiences that no one knows about.
As hard as it is, try to keep in mind that exploring what pressures prompted your teen to self-harm in the first place is a necessary step toward healing.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward has been a therapist for over 25 years and has worked with many teenagers and their families, dealing with issues like self-harm. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
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