You have just found out your child is cutting (also referred to as self-injury). You are likely feeling shocked, scared, angry, helpless, guilty, disappointed, and at a loss for words. You may be asking yourself, how could this happen? You may be looking at your teen and thinking…Why are you doing this? Are you doing this to hurt me? What did I do wrong?
Please know that none of your feelings or thoughts are wrong, they are normal responses that many parents experience. What is important is to educate yourself about self-injury, learn how to approach your child with the knowledge you have of self-injury, and get your child the additional support that they need. As a counselor working with kids at Life Skills Resource Group, I have encountered many parents who are scared to the point of being frozen, who have no idea what they need to be doing to help their child who is self-injuring.
Here are some tips to get you started.
The number one thing I recommend to parents of kids who self-injure is for them to educate themselves. Self-injury is about more than cutting. It is burning, hitting, scratching, anything done to self with the purpose of harming one’s body. The more knowledge a parent has about self-injury, the better equipped they will be to help their child through this difficult time. I recommend the book When Your Child is Cutting: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Overcome Self-Injury by McVey, Khemlani-Patel, and Neziroglu.
In the book it states that one of the first things you can do to help your child is to evaluate your own feelings about your child’s self-injury before talking with them. It is perfectly normal to be feeling panicked that your child self-injures. However, when you talk with your child, you want your child and what they are feeling to be the center of attention, not your feelings and thoughts about self-injury. Kids often feel unable to ask for help when they self-injure, due to the fear of how their parents will react. Many kids worry they will get in trouble, be called names, or have to deal with other negative responses to the self-injury.
The next thing you can do is to make a plan of action that is not based on your feelings. Once you have started to educate yourself about self-injury, found some resources to consult, and have some intervention strategies you will be better equipped to talk with your child without letting your feelings run the conversation. It is ok to be honest with your child about your feelings as long as it is in a supportive way. For example you can say, “At first I was angry and scared when I heard that you were cutting, but I love you and am concerned for you. I want to help you get through this difficult time.” Being honest with your child helps to keep your talk with them genuine, which is so important.
What a child who is cutting needs to hear:
1. Their parents have some understanding of self-injury.
2. They are not in trouble, and they will not be judged.
3. They will be supported in any way necessary to ensure that they get the help they need.
I believe, as do the authors of the book, that it is vital to resolve, not avoid, the issue. I have had families come to me long after they were aware that their child was self-injuring, yet they had waited to address the issue. These parents had hoped their child would outgrow self-injuring. The truth is, self-injury is not something that just goes away because it’s not discussed. Actually, ignoring self-injury can make it worse, as the underlying issue that lead to it is also being ignored. Having a talk with your child about self-injury may be the most difficult talk you will have with them. This cannot be a deterrent.
If you have educated yourself about self-injury, put resources in place, and found intervention strategies, yet still feel like you cannot have the talk with your child; then it’s time to ask for help. Role play with another adult the conversation you plan to have with your child. Write out a script; use note cards, if necessary. If you still feel you can’t talk with your child, you need to seek professional help. A counselor who has experience in working with children who self-injure can help guide you and plan your conversation with your child. An experienced Counselor will help normalize your feelings and help build the confidence you will need to talk with your child. Your Counselor can facilitate the conversation, if needed, and work with your child directly to address the underlying issue that lead to self-injury in the first place.
As a counselor who has successfully worked with kids who self-injure and their parents, I can tell you that self-injury is treatable. Kids often self-injure as a way to manage unwanted and overwhelming feelings. Self-injury is their coping skill, their way of regulating painful emotions. A child who self-injures does not use (or does not have) healthy tools that enable them to deal with powerful emotions, and self-injury provides them with temporary relief. Fortunately, kids can be taught new tools to use in place of self-injury that are healthy and effective. If your child self-injures, a counselor who has experience in treating self-injury can offer a safe, nonjudgmental place for your child to learn new tools and build confidence to use these tools in place of self-injury. The counselors at Life Skills Resource Group in Orlando have the knowledge, training and experience to help you and your child work through this difficult time. Please don’t hesitate to call our office at 407-355-7378 with any questions you may have or to schedule a free phone consultation.
Amy V. Smith , MS, LMHC