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For parents, seeing or hearing about self-harm from their child can be confusing, frightening, alarming, and shocking. It’s even normal to experience an anger response when confronting self-harm behavior because it’s truly so hard to comprehend and make sense of sometimes.
Parents may want their kids to “just stop” these behaviors, and it can be frustrating, disappointing, and downright scary when it continues. Not only is it frightening to see scars or burns, but it’s upsetting to know how much pain your child is truly in. You may be worried that your child is trying to kill themselves, which creates a lot of fear in parents and caregivers.
Unfortunately, controlling self-harm behavior is not always straightforward because it takes time to learn the skills to utilize healthier coping mechanisms. Thankfully, there is a lot that you can do to support your child. Although this experience is anything but easy, your response can make a significant difference in the process.
Staying Calm and Non-Judgmental in Your Approach
It’s natural to have a million questions to ask your child when you discover they are self-harming. Why are they doing it? How long has this been happening? Are they doing it alone or with others? Where are they finding things to hurt themself with? Don’t they care about their body? Do they want to die?
Kids may be embarrassed, ashamed, and just as confused as their parents as to why they’re engaging in these behaviors as a coping skill. They often go to great lengths to hide their injuries or wounds by doing it in discreet places that their parents won’t see (such as the inner thighs and stomach), and they may wear long sleeves and pants to hide recent marks.
While it is understandable as parents to be upset, we suggest using an approach that is curious versus furious: be calm, non-judgmental, supportive, and understanding. Lecturing, shaming, or interrogating your child is not helpful. Care, concern, and listening with an open mind is the key to getting your child the support they need.
How to Start a Conversation
You may be wondering how to start a conversation about self-harm with your child. While we want to respond without strong emotions, we can still express our concerns for their well-being and the importance of having a conversation about their behavior.
Here are some things to remember:
When and where is be the most calming, private, and safe place to have this discussion? Who should have the conversation? Which parent or adult will the child be most likely to open up to and/or share their experience with?
When starting the conversation, be specific. Focus on the facts and finish by asking what’s going on, or what’s up? For example, “I noticed yesterday during dinner that you have five scratches/cuts along your arm. They seemed to be healing up. What happened? What’s going on?” Share your concerns.
As the conversation continues, provide continued reassurance of your support. Ask questions and make guesses when appropriate. Reflect and clarify what you are hearing them say. Confirm with them that you are understanding their perspective.
Even when we don’t understand or agree with self-harm behavior, we can still express our support and care for the individual. Having someone to speak with openly about their experiences and emotions helps a child process their self-harming.
As a parent, doing your own research and educating yourself about self-harm behavior can be helpful in understanding the “why” behind your child’s behavior. This can allow you to better relate and have compassion as to what they’re going through. Learn all you can about this mental health symptom and coping skill to expand your understanding.
With this said, it’s still very important to seek professional help. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a therapy model designed specifically to help clients with self-harming behaviors. Family therapy is also very beneficial for clients who are self-injurious. If your child isn’t yet comfortable sharing with you, you can provide them with crisis numbers for emergencies
Additionally, work with your child to create a safety plan. This involves removing the item(s) they use for their self-harming behaviors. For example, you may remove razor blades or sharp objects from your child’s immediate possession and limit their access when possible. Ensuring that you have first-aid items at home can also ensure that you’re able to care for injuries as needed. As always, seek medical attention if warranted.
Here at Idaho Youth Ranch, we specialize in adolescent and family therapy. We can help your child identify, understand, and manage strong emotions and learn more effective ways to respond to these feelings in the future. We also offer essential TeleMental Health services.
It is never easy to learn that your child is self-harming. While you may feel overwhelmed, angry, or concerned, responding in calm and supportive ways is essential.
An initial conversation may be the most important. However, it’s also vital to follow up with your child. You can connect them to meaningful mental health supports, help them identify possible self-harm triggers, and encourage healthier coping mechanisms.
Self-harm behaviors are significant and should be addressed quickly. Responding with care and concern can encourage your child to share their experiences and seek help. Learn more about how Idaho Youth Ranch can help.