11 Helpful Tips From a Parent of a Child Who Self-Harms
Article updated July 15, 2019
When my children were young I read parenting books; the ones that explained how to train your child to sleep through the night and offered strategies for dealing with temper tantrums.
When my children entered adolescents, I studied parenting books that demonstrated how to talk so they would listen and how to cope with angry outbursts while staying calm and maintaining my sanity.
When my son starting self-harming, I couldn’t find parenting books that provided me with skills, practical information and therapeutic tools to help him. I felt frustrated, alone and helpless.
As a parent I wanted to protect my child, but I didn’t know how to protect him from himself. I discovered few people could provide me with the information I was seeking. It took many years of working with professionals to understand my son’s inner turmoil and help him move in a positive direction.
Here are 11 tips I discovered along the way to help any parent going through a similar situation:
1. Do not ask why.
When someone self-harms, they might not have words to describe their pain — the self-harm is an outward display of their inner emotions. Asking why will not give you the explanation you are looking for, and if your child doesn’t have the answer, this line of questioning will only make them feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Instead, ask if there is anything you can do to help them feel better.
2. Talk to your child about first aid.
By inquiring if bandages, an antibiotic ointment or any other type of first aid is needed, you are starting a dialogue. This may open up an opportunity for your child to show you more of their injuries or tell you something about their pain. It is important your child knows they should wash their wounds with soap and water and continue to keep them clean to avoid an infection. Explain the signs of an infection and the importance of seeking medical attention if needed.
3. Ask if they are safe and/or if they can keep themselves safe.
If your child has hurt themselves, then they are in pain. And I don’t mean just physical pain, they are in emotional pain. Self-harm usually isn’t a suicide attempt, but suicidal thoughts can accompany the self-harm. There is a strong link between previous self-harm and suicide. Do not ignore it. If they are having suicidal thoughts speak to a professional.
4. Validate your child’s feelings.
Validation is one of the most important elements to learn before parenting any child. You are acknowledging your child’s emotions, not diminishing them. You don’t have to agree with their feelings — you just have to be supportive. Everyone deserves to be accepted without judgment. Validation helps your child feel heard, acknowledged, and understood.
5. Find a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist.
Your child needs to talk to an experienced and competent professional. Do not be afraid to interview them and make sure they are the right fit. Obtain referrals from physicians, friends or family members. Then, as a parent, it’s OK if you need to talk to someone as much as your child. Take time to nurture yourself.
6. Do not punish your child for self-injurious behavior.
Self-harm is not an act of rebellion or attention seeking behavior; your child is hurting themselves because they are in a great deal of emotional pain. Don’t make their pain worse. Love them, nurture them and listen to them.
7. Remove obvious items that can be used for self-injury.
If your child has to go to the effort of finding something to use for self-harm, rather than grabbing a knife from the kitchen drawer, it may give them time to think about what they are doing and change his or her mind. Lock sharp items away, take them with you or hide them, but don’t leave them out for easy access.
8. Research self-harm and healthy coping skills.
This is a time when you have a lot of questions. There are many helpful sites about self-injury on the internet. Learn about dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This type of therapy combines standard psychotherapy with skills training. The patients learn healthy coping skills to combat self-harm triggers. DBT works best if the parent also learns about the therapeutic method, so they can be supportive and encouraging.
9. Do not minimize self-harm.
When a child self-harms on a regular basis a parent can get into the habit of thinking this behavior is “not so bad.” This is dangerous; every incident of self-harm is significant and should not be minimized. Remember there are links between self-injury and suicide.
10. Be honest, not disappointed.
Your child doesn’t want to be in emotional pain or hurt themselves. Part of the healing process will involve set-backs. Be prepared for these and never tell your child you are disappointed in them for self-harming. This will only create a barrier in your relationship. Remember to validate, you don’t have to agree, you just have to listen. Honesty can create a bond between you and your child. If you don’t know what to say or do, be truthful and tell your child you don’t know how to help them. They will accept this, because not knowing what to do is exactly how they feel.
11. Don’t say “but.”
But is a word that invalidates. For example if you say, “I’m proud of you for telling me that you cut yourself, but next time talk to me before this happens.” In some cases, the only thing your child will hear is that they weren’t good enough. Instead say, “I’m proud of you for telling me that you cut yourself, how do you feel now?” Have a dialogue and then later ask, “What can we do to help you talk to me if you are having these feelings or urges again?” Your child doesn’t listen to everything you say; make sure everything you say is worth hearing.
Overcoming the addictive hold self-harm has on your child will take time, patience and effort. Offer your help and guidance, be the parent your child needs during this difficult time in their life.
For more information about self-harm, visit:
To see more from Theresa, visit her website.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.
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