As a parent, you’d give your very life to protect your child from anything and everything. For that very reason, it becomes an absolute nightmare when you feel you have to protect your child from themselves. The troubling statistics don’t lie. One out of five females and one out of seven males practice some form of self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).
NSSI has many names: self-mutilation, self-injury, self-inflicted violence and cutting, and can take many forms. Among these are cutting, picking scabs, pulling hair, biting, burning, scalding, hitting, inserting objects in the skin and even breaking bones.
What Self Harm IS
Self-harm (NSSI) is the act of harming one’s self as a coping mechanism. Like when the person isn’t able to verbalize deep sadness or other overwhelming feelings. Shelf harm can also occur when there is a deep sense of shame or to vent their self-loathing. Often a “numb” feeling prompts a person to act in a way that would help them to “wake up”.
When a child feels their life is in a state of chaos and upheaval, it can come with a sense of helplessness or meaninglessness in their minds. Self-harm then becomes a way of exercising control, even if it’s only of their own bodies.
Self-harm is connected to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and physical abuse.
Self-harm is an addictive behavior. In the act of expressing these overwhelming feelings through self-mutilation, the body produces a cathartic rush of endorphins. Endorphins are the same chemical present when we experience the release of pain and the presence of pleasure, activating an all-around positive feeling in the body. The brain will start associating this “feel better” rush of endorphins as a soothing feeling connected to the act of self-harm, rather than a destructive activity.
What Self Harm is NOT
Because the discovery of self-harm in your child can be a shocking discovery it is very important to not overthink things.
Self-harm is not an attempt at suicide, though it is possible that would lead to that outcome if left untreated. Rather self-harm is used as a coping strategy FOR life rather than a method used for ENDING life.
Self-harm is not used for attention seeking. The nature of self-harm is quite personal and private. More often than not, the self-harm is concealed and out of the view of prying eyes, practiced on parts of the body that are not seen by the public, and done at times when the person is not going to be suspected or interrupted.
Self-harm is not a mental illness. Categorized as psychological, self-harm is not in and of itself a mental illness but can accompany mental illnesses, which should only be diagnosed by a trained professional.
Discovering Self Harm in Your Child
Just like other self-destructive behaviors, self-injury will leave clues. These could include:
Withdrawal from social activities and average behavior. Sadness and notable isolation from friendships, activities, and family interactions.
Long periods of time spent in a bedroom or bathroom.
Razor blades, knives, lighters or other “tools” along with blood.
Unexplained marks or an increase of “accidents”.
Changes in clothing styles. Used to conceal marks, long-sleeved shirts or seasonally inappropriate choices may indicate a desire to conceal. For hair pulling hats, scarves or winter caps may be used to hide missing hair. Wristbands and bracelets are also worn.
As mentioned above, self-harm can be related to depression, eating disorders and physical abuse. What is definitive though, is that not all people who self-harm understand why they do it. A crisis point develops when lack of communication skills combine with a feeling of loss of control in their lives. At this point, a surge of frustration urges for and springs to action.
Is it MY Fault?
Being a parent faced with a situation like self-harm, the first instinct (after the shock) is usually to question if you were in any way responsible for the behavior. Questions flood the mind: “Am I too hard on them?” “Am I too distant?” “How can I fix this?”, and they are all normal. Insomuch that they are healthy. Unless there has been abuse or neglect on your part, the answer is no. It’s not your fault. Counselors at LifeLine For Youth are available for any questions you may have.
Addressing Self Harm
So the secret is out, and now the ball is in your court. What happens next is very important, so we’ll begin with the first very important steps:
1. Don’t freak out. Right now your child is needing stability in their lives. Their load of shame is more than they can handle and your reaction needs to be low key and calm. Getting overexcited or angry will only cause your child to pull back from the connection they need to make with you, as they will no doubt feel more condemnation from a harsh response. But don’t be so laid back that it looks like you’re dismissing the problem altogether. Action must be taken to get your child the help they need.
2.Because self-injury is born from a lack of communication skills (which take time to develop), don’t expect immediate change. Experiencing overbearing emotion is not something that can be controlled by willpower. During the teen years, the struggle to comprehend emotional balance is real.
3.To prevent your child from compounding the shame, fear, and condemnation, a direct approach is not recommended. If a child perceives judgment they stop reaching for help.
4. Work on Building a relationship. Learning to engage a child can be a daunting task. Creating opportunities for open, two-way talk is key. A trip out for ice cream alone or a walk through a park may give a better result than “How was your day” after school. When you get to a place where you can address the issue ask, don’t accuse. When relaying their difficulties, you might add “Is that why you’re hurting yourself?”
Here is a brief list of things you can do to be proactive about your child’s self-harm.
Keep them safe. Attend to any wounds to keep them from infection with basic first aid.
Be supportive and calm. This isn’t about you, it’s about helping your child.
Talk about triggers and keep the dialogue open. Don’t focus on the harm aspect, but what causes the overwhelm that they’re feeling.
Suggest less invasive behaviors, such as exercise, which also releases the feel-good dopamine.
Contact LifeLine For Youth to find out how we can help. Expressing a desire to learn about what is troubling your child can show them your support and care.
Conversely, there is also a list of things that you shouldn’t do and could be detrimental to your child’s well being.
Refrain from criticism. Right now there needs to be a good foundation laid for non-judgmental support and compassion. Shame will only compound the problem.
Don’t ask or demand them to stop. This may push them to become more secretive and sneaky about the behavior.
Don’t overreact. Don’t automatically assume they are suicidal. Let them know that you are a safe place to come to and confide in.
Don’t pretend to understand. At this point, the child doesn’t understand it and there isn’t a way you can have this figured out. Offer to help them manage their feelings instead.
Don’t ask why. Decisions based on emotion don’t necessarily have an answer. Even people without self-harming problems cannot always explain how their emotions influence their actions. Instead, ask how you can help.