Dos & Don’ts for Parents of Self-Injurers
Self-injury (SI) has become a common way of coping for teens. Although self-injury is not a new trend, it is a current one and parents of teens who self-injure are still left with many questions and concerns. If you discover your teen is self-injuring there are certain things you can do to that will be more helpful for your child. Here are some general Do’s & Don’ts for parents of self-injuring teens:
Talk to your child about the self-injury. Talking to your child about the SI will at bare minimum communicate that you care. Ask your child questions and listen to her answers. Validate her feelings. Communicate carefully your care and concern without overreacting.
Assume you know why he is self-injuring. I have heard many parents assume their kids are self-injuring because they know other kids who self injure, or for attention, etc. But the only way you will know why your child is self-injuring is by having a conversation about it with him. Difficulty expressing feelings is a commonality in people who self-injure, so assuming things about the self-injurer’s feelings and motivations will only perpetuate any non-communication among the self-injurer.
Insist your child show you his self-injury. Make sure to do so in a non-threatening, non-emotional way. Even though this may be uncomfortable for you and your child, it is important you see the severity of the SI. It can help answer questions like, “how often? Where? How severe?” etc. It will also provide helpful information for any counselor or other professional. Asking to see the self injury continues to send the message to your child that you care. Additionally, let your child know you will continually check in with him on his self injury (ex. I will ask to see your arms every day). Remind him you are not trying to punish him but that you are doing this because you care. Hint: Teens can self injure just about anywhere on their bodies. Make sure to check more hidden body parts, like their stomachs or between their toes.
Remove any items your child is using to self-injure. Make sure to ask your child what items she is using to self injure and then make sure to confiscate those items. Then use your best judgment as a parent and remove any similar items you believe pose a threat to your child. Make sure when you remove the items the child is using to self injure you are communicating that you are doing so because you care and want to help her not hurt herself, and that it is NOT a punishment.
Shame them. It’s likely your child is already struggling with managing her emotions if she is self-injuring. It’s also likely (not absolute, but likely) your child already struggles with shame or self-dislike, so be VERY conscience of your reaction to her SI. The more emotionless your response to viewing and discussing the SI, the better. Be aware of not only what you are saying, but your body language. It is ok to tell your child you are worried and you care, but do so in a controlled way.
Offer other coping mechanisms for your child. Remember that SI is often a poor coping response to some type of stress, so if you want your child to remove this coping mechanism, he will need to begin using healthier coping options. This includes talking about the triggers and emotions behind self injury. Take your child to a counselor to further this process.
Assume your child is suicidal just because she is self-injuring. SI does not automatically mean that your child is suicidal. Certainly suicide should be assessed for and treated if there are ANY suicidal thoughts or intentions are present. So if you teen presents with suicidal thoughts or intentions, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. But just because your teen is self-injuring does not mean they are suicidal.
There are many reasons for why teens self injure and there are many different ways SI can present. It can be a scary and confusing discovery for parents and seeking professional help is often the best route for both parent and teen. For more information on self injury, a wonderful online resource is the Cornell Research Program on Self Injury in Adolescents and Young Adults. http://www.crpsib.com/whatissi.asp. This website has lots of current research and information on SI and can be a quick link for parents to educate themselves on SI. However defeating self-injury can take a lot of work, so don’t hesitate to seek professional help to ensure your teen gets the best treatment for him/her to overcome self-injury.