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16 Things Parents Should Know About Raising a Child Who Self-Harms

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The discovery that your child — your baby — has been engaging in self-harm often comes with a flood of questions: “Why is this happening? Is this something I could have stopped? What did I do wrong? What can I do now?”

While a good first step is to take a breath; a second step might be to learn from people who’ve been there — people with a history of self-harm. To get you started, we asked people in our mental health community to share one thing they would tell parents with a child who self-harms. There answers are important and insightful, and might help you moving forward as you and your child tackle this journey together.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on the experience of individuals and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. For more information, you can also check out this guide for parents and family from Self-Harm Outreach and Support.

Here’s what people in our community told us:

1. “Making the child feel guilty or telling them they’ve hurt you, will make it worse. I hurt myself because I wanted to punish myself. Being told I was hurting other people made it worse.”

2. “Self-harming does not always equate to wanting to die — it could be a coping method. Instead of punishing them, offer an alternative such as pens, elastic bands or ice cubes to be used instead. Try not to be too harsh or judgmental — they’re probably hurting themselves enough mentally and/or physically and need an ally.”

3. “It’s not a phase. It’s not a cry for attention. It’s a release of pain. Your child is in pain. Treat them like they’re in pain, not like they’re ‘crazy’ or bad. And don’t pretend you didn’t see it or that it’s not going to happen again because it might.”

4. “As a parent, take self-harm seriously. Don’t shame, be supportive and firm in the child getting professional help. The cutting is a way of communicating what the child cannot put in to words. And the most important thing: take your child in your arms and tell them a thousand times you will never, ever give up in them.”

5. “It’s not just cutting; self-harm can be any self-abuse including starvation and reckless behavior with the intent to cause injury. It’s something to manifest pain and frustration into reality. Don’t talk them out of it; talk with them to learn why and find better channels of release.”

6. “Getting angry at them will not help the situation. They are already doing it because they dislike themselves or have some mental health issues they don’t know how to cope with. Anger may only make them want to do it more because they feel even more worthless, and now know they cannot express their struggles to you.”

7. “Take them to see a licensed professional as soon as possible. Your love and support will help tremendously, but this is a sign that they need professional help as well. If you chalk it up to ‘going through a phase,’ the behavior (due to constant emotional pain) may persist or worsen as it did for me as a child.”

8. “Don’t mistake them for an ‘attention seeker!’ They are doing it because they need help, because they want help, so help them. Don’t blame them, don’t be angry when they don’t stop; just help them. If someone had helped me, I may not be in the situation I’m in today. So please, it may not be what you want to see or hear, but help them.”

9. “Don’t be afraid to talk to your child about it, but accept it if they choose not to. The greatest thing my mom has done is check in with me frequently. She’s supportive when I need to talk and she respects my need for privacy when I don’t feel up to talking. Create a supportive environment that welcomes conversations about it; it’s not something to be ashamed about. Don’t create a stigma at home — we get enough of that at school and from the media.”

10. “Just listen. Don’t respond unless they ask for your opinion. Reassure them you want to support them and you are there – without judgment. Don’t push them into therapy if they aren’t ready. They need to have control over it because they likely feel that they don’t have control over anything else in their lives right now. Be there. Don’t judge. Be empathetic. Love them.”

11. “Please do not use telling the doctor or hospitalization as an ultimatum threat. That only teaches your child to fear the help they need. Walk with them through the pain. Give them a hug. Learn about their mental illness. Ask questions. Become your child’s advocate and ally.”

12. “Treat your children like people. Yes, they might be young people, but that doesn’t mean their emotions or illnesses aren’t real. Take it seriously, but be compassionate. Help your child get the help they need, and work with them, their therapists and their psychiatrists (if they need medication) to help them through what they are going through.”

13. “Don’t make them promise to stop because you’ll never know how disappointed they will feel with themselves if they’ve broken that promise. Don’t get angry or upset because they can’t explain why; more often than not they don’t even know why. And finally, just be open and understanding. Do not judge.”

14. “Your child is still your child. While self-harm is serious and worrying, don’t fear your child. Don’t pull away or get angry. But rather continue to be there and try and show you care and you’re open for when they’re ready to open up.”

15. “Just because we don’t tell you doesn’t mean we don’t trust you or are trying to shut you out. We might just be too ashamed.”

16. “I never told my parents that I hurt myself. I hid it. I was ashamed of it… I still am. I self-harm because I feel like I don’t know how to express my feelings. I feel shame about feeling or not being able to control my feelings. After a while, self-harm became something I needed, just like a drug addict. To be able to stop self-harming, I need trust, compassion, love and understanding. I need a safe space to be able to talk, or cry… I’m going to beat myself up about it more than you are. Please… just hear me, listen to me, hold me and let me know that it’s OK, even if it’s not in that moment. I need hope.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

Originally published: March 14, 2017
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