4 Tips For What To Do When You Discover Your Child Is Self-Injuring

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Why Do People Self-Harm? Parenting Advice & Tips For What To Do If You Find Out Your Child Is Self-Injuring
Family, Health And Wellness

Use these four steps to support your child.

It's not a trend. It is not a means to seek attention or validation.

Why do people self-harm?

It is a way of finding relief from painful emotions. It is a strategy that is used when unpleasant thoughts run rampant.

It is an approach that creates an unhealthy pattern of behavior to cope through moments in time that feel unbearable.

Research finds about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys across America — regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs or socioeconomic status, engage in self-harming behaviors to manage their emotional pain.

RELATED: Why People Cut Themselves & The Best Alternatives When You Feel The Need To Self-Harm

Non-suicidal, self-injurious behaviors (NSIB) include cutting/scratching one’s skin, banging one’s head against the wall, burning oneself, physically harming others or damaging property with one’s body, etc., to gain relief from overwhelming, unpleasant, and painful emotions.

NSIBs are used to shut out negative feelings and relieve stress experienced by your teen.

When parents find out that their child engages in self-injurious behavior, fright consumes them and their internal alarm system fires up.

Parents have a range of reactions to this discovery, from hiding all objects that their child could use to inflict harm upon themselves to keeping their child within line of sight as often as possible, to considering psychiatric hospitalization or at times to ignore the reality, hoping it will go away on its own.

Here are 4 parenting tips you need to consider if your child is engaging in self-harm:

1. Take a step back

Discovering that your child is self-injuring will bring up feelings from helplessness to guilt, grief, and even anger. It is important that parents approach their child from a calm place.

Parents have to take a moment to process things, as well as the child, who may fear that they are in trouble.

Many parents fear that self-injury is a suicide attempt. While children may feel suicidal and it is something needs to be discussed, self-injury itself is not a suicide attempt.

It is important as a parent to do your best not to panic. Do your best to regulate your emotions before speaking with your child.

2. Approach your child with curiosity

To open the conversation, consider leading with curiosity. Ask questions. Seek to understand how self-injury helps your child feel different and the purpose that it holds in your kid’s life.

Doing so will allow you both to have the space to create a meaningful conversation with one another.

Be mindful. Many teenagers will probably be very scared that their parent found out. To foster your child being honest about their experience, consider letting them know that they are not in trouble and acknowledge how they may be afraid to have this kind of conversation with you.

True confessions: There is a possibility that you'll approach this conversation with your child in a skillful way and find that you are met with resistance from them. Your child may shut-down, your child may yell, your child may cry.

There is a possibility that your kid will refuse to speak with you about it due to fear, shame, embarrassment, or a variety of other reasons. In this situation, while it seems counter-intuitive, allowing children an appropriate amount of space will encourage them to open up.

RELATED: 10 Tattoos That Cover Up Cutting Scars And Honor Your Struggle

3. Find professional support

This is a serious issue best supported by a qualified professional. If your family doesn’t already see a therapist, call a few to find one who works with adolescents who self-injure.

A therapist will help create an open environment for the child to learn ways to cope with negative emotions. Young people need immediate alternatives for moments of crisis, as well as lifelong emotional regulation skills.

A therapist will also help them explore underlying issues, including trouble at school, mental illness or other stressors such as trauma and abuse that they are experiencing.

Parents should consider seeking professional help for themselves as well. As much as it is important to not shame the child who is engaging in self-injurious behavior, it’s also important for the parent to practice being nonjudgmental and not shaming themselves as a parent.

4. Model healthy emotional behavior

At a developmentally appropriate level, let your child see when you are hurting or struggling. Express your emotions using words and show them how you handle feelings (pleasant or unpleasant) effectively.

Whether that’s taking time and space to cool down, or crying a little. Children will soak up this information, even if it doesn’t stick right away.

In this way, parents play an active role in their child’s recovery by modeling healthy, adaptive ways of managing emotions.

The journey of recovery — for the teen and their parent, is a process. Healing your child will take time and patience. Recovery won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that time is often on the parents’ side.

Developmentally speaking, neurologically speaking, physiologically speaking, a teenager is moving toward better brain integration as they mature. Their emotions are going to feel less turbulent to them and less overwhelming as they get older.

Adolescents who self-injure can recover, particularly if their parents stay calm upon finding out about the behavior, when they intentionally lead with curiosity and care, and when they connect their child (and themselves) with professional support.

Parents who practice modeling skillful ways to handle emotions help their child in their recovery, too.

While it may not seem like that’s enough to protect your kid, these are helpful steps on the road to recovery and healing.

If you or anyone you know is self-harming, depressed, contemplating suicide, or if you are concerned for someone else, here are some helpful resources:

RELATED: Why I Made My Self-Injury Scars Visible In My Online Dating Profile

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Vena M. Wilson, LCSW, owner of Honey Bee Behavioral Health in Las Vegas, Nevada, focuses on helping people to rebuild their lives after experiencing trauma. She is passionate about teaching people ways to take self-injury and suicide off the table as an option to managing their painful emotions, and her commentary about self-injurious behaviors, parenting, and utilizing skillful means has appeared on The Washington Post. You can connect with her directly on her website.

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