What to do when your child/teenager is self-harming
As a parent, it is alarming and extremely upsetting to find out your child at any age is self-harming. No parent book can prepare you for this and it is common to feel a mixture of emotions. Finding out that your child is harming themselves can increase anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, frustration and sadness.
Self-harm is a common unhealthy coping skill young individuals nowadays utilize. Most of the time, this is not a reflection on the parenting yet the stress and emotional issues your child may be experiencing on their own. Self-harm can be self-inflicted cuts or burns, punching and pinching themselves.
In theory, our brains experience physical and emotional pain in the same two areas (anterior insula, and anterior cingulate cortex). These areas in the brain process pain and cannot differentiate between a bee sting and anxiety triggers. Individuals who engage in self-harm learn to inflict physical pain to release “feel good” hormones in the body, therefore causing a decrease in the emotional pain.
The purpose of individual for self-harming differs from person to person. Some may believe they deserve it, others might feel so numb that harming is better than nothing feeling nothing. Individuals who self-harm, hurt themselves to cope with their intense emotional pain. It is important to understand that emotions are not just psychological, and that they are physical sensations as well.
So what next?
As a parent the number one thing you can do is support your child’s recovery, in which many parents have reported a positive relationship increase with their child. Here are a few tips to help parents get through this distressing time.
- Do not question their motives. Asking the why/how/when will not provide answers and more importantly your child may not even have the answers. Instead ask them how they would like to be supported.
- Validate their feelings! Validation may seem counterproductive, yet it is an essential piece to parenting. By acknowledging your child’s inner pain, they feel heard and understood.
- Do not punish your child. Self-harm can look and is talked about as a sign of rebellious behaviors, but that is a myth. Do not make pain worse, and instead nurture them with love.
- Create a safety plan with your child. Have a conversation and make their space safe and remove any objects utilized to inflict harm. Discuss what the child can do instead, such as phone a friend, remove themselves from the room or talk with a trusted friend.
- Assess for suicidal ideations. It is OKAY to ask your child if they have any suicidal thoughts. Feel free to ask multiple times as your child may feel scared/embarrassed. Remember your child is just as confused as you are.
- Find a therapist. Therapists are trained clinicians that assist in these situations and can help you and your child heal from the pain.
Helping your child overcome self-harm is stressful and scary. Offer your guidance and nurturance throughout your child’s recovery. If you are in need of support for yourself and family, please contact Therapy Etc.