Responding after your child self-harms: 6 steps for parents
No parent is prepared to learn their child is self-harming. Guilt, anger and worry are common feelings for parents after self-harm has been discovered. Knowing how to respond, rather than react, to your child will be important to your relationship and your child’s healing process. Following these 6 steps can be the beginning of healing for your child and your family.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm or self-injurious behaviors appear to be increasing among children and adolescents. Self-injurious behaviors include cutting, head-banging, scratching, pinching, hitting oneself, or any other behavior to purposefully cause injury to self. It is usually a result of a child trying to release inner stress through physical pain and does not necessarily mean they are suicidal.
Address any immediate safety and medical concerns
Some self-injurious behaviors result in no significant harm for the child and do not need medical follow-up, while others require medical attention. If there are open wounds or other injuries, it is important you tend to these wounds or see a physician if injuries are more significant.
Additionally, removing items that increase the possibility of injury, such as razor blades and knives, can reduce the risk of future self-harming behaviors. You may even want to involve your child in locking up sharp objects to give them a hand in keeping themselves safe. If immediate safety concerns are present, you should call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room. County crisis lines can also provide support to address imminent safety concerns (Multnomah County Crisis Line: 503-988-4888).
Give yourself a moment to breathe
It is normal for you to feel upset and confused after discovering your child has self-harmed. Taking time, even just a moment, to breathe or engage in other relaxation strategies can make a big difference in your response.
Don’t punish your child for self-harming
Many parents are inclined to punish self-injurious behavior in an attempt to provide motivation for their child to stop self-harming. Often, however, punishments for self-harming result in kids better hiding their self-harm and feeling unable to seek out support around the underlying causes. This can ultimately negatively impact the relationship between you and your child and potentially increase the self-injurious behavior. If you did punish or react poorly to your child self-harming, make amends. This will help reopen up the conversation about self-harming. Make sure to let them know they did the right thing by telling you!
Talk to your child to understand the behavior
There are several misconceptions around why people self-harm. Contrary to common beliefs, self-injurious behavior is not typically a suicide attempt or a way to get attention. These misconceptions can influence how parents respond to their child after an incident of self-harming. In order for parents and caregivers to respond in an effective way, it is crucial parents better understand what is behind the behavior. Talk to your child in a curious and non-judgmental way to better understand what led to them self-harming. Don’t make assumptions around why your child has self-harmed. Your child may not even initially know why they have self-harmed, but you can help them build insight and skills to reduce self-harm. It can take time for your child to understand and feel comfortable communicating why they self-harmed, so try not to get frustrated. The last 2 steps will support these conversations. Discovering the triggers and building trust with your child is a crucial part of recovery.
By taking the time to understand your child’s behavior, you are already showing empathy. Providing an empathic response to your child will allow them to communicate honestly with you and feel a connection with you that they likely need at this time. Continue to provide empathy throughout the recovery process. Providing empathy does not mean you are condoning the behavior, it shows you can sit in their difficult emotions with them and that they are not alone in this process.
Seek out professional help
Self-harm is not a part of typical development and it is a sign your child may be experiencing emotional distress. Seeking out help from school counselors, pediatricians, and mental health professionals is often necessary for families when a child is self-harming. These professionals can help identify the triggers to self-injurious behavior while developing a robust safety plan to keep your child safe.
As a parent, you might feel ashamed that your child is experiencing distress. It is important that you care for yourself in this process and let go of any negative or blaming thoughts you might be attaching to yourself around their behavior. Take time for yourself to gain awareness of your own thoughts and feelings so you feel that you can parent in a responsive way.