Inside this post: I was terrified when my daughter told me she was cutting herself. Here are five dos and don’ts for parents when dealing with adolescent self-harm.
The note was written on pink paper, folded up, and taped to my bedroom door. On the outside, in my 12-year-old daughter’s handwriting, it said, “Respond 2nite!”
I unfolded it and read:
I have to tell you something. Something important. I’ve needed to tell u 4 a while but I didn’t know how u would react. I still don’t know but I can’t keep this a secret any longer. I’m trusting you. Write back because I will be too chicken if we are face to face. — Faithy
“What the heck?” I said to myself. I had no idea what she was going to tell me. My mind jumped to worst-case scenarios.
Was she being abused? Was she doing drugs? My heart pounded as I wrote back on the bottom of her note,
You can tell me anything. I won’t tell a soul. Love, Mom
I tucked it under her door, went back to my room, and waited, my heart threatening to burst out of my chest.
Finally, she wrote back.
Ah! I’m gonna regret this! I can’t believe I’m telling u. I’m gonna write it small.
I cut myself.
Nothing prepares a parent for finding out your child self-harms
A swell of sadness rushed through me like my heart was pumping sorrow rather than blood.
I went to my daughter’s room, opening the door without even knocking. She was lying in bed, facing away from the door. I curled around her and hugged her tight.
“You’re not mad at me?” she asked.
“No. I’m sad for you.” Beyond sad, I thought to myself.
She showed me the cuts on her arms, scratches, really. But some were deeper than others.
I held her wrist and spoke softly. “Faithy, if someone else were doing this to you, I would tell them to stop hurting my daughter. So, please, stop hurting my daughter.”
What can parents do to address adolescent self-harm?
That was sixteen years ago. Today, Faith is a licensed social worker and therapist. She manages her mental health like a champ, and she and I are closer than ever.
Together, we are working to end the stigma against mental illness, and she has encouraged me to share this story.
With the increase in mental health struggles of adolescents and self-harm recently making national news, parents might wonder what they can do if they discover their child is engaging in self-harm.
According to the CDC, 1 in 4 teen girls and 1 in 10 teen boys self-harm. Cutting (using a sharp object like a razorblade, knife, or scissors to make marks, cuts, or scratches on one’s own body) appeals to kids who might not be ready to try drugs and alcohol but who are seeking a simple way to alleviate their emotional pain.
The scary thing is many pre-teens and teens feel like it works. Even scarier, it’s highly addictive. And scariest of all, once you start, you have to cut deeper and more often to get that same quick fix. For impulsive teens, it can be devastating.
Five tips if you find out your teen is participating in self-harm activities
So what can parents do? Here are five Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to adolescent self-harm:
Don’t shame. Do empathize.
As an adult, you may think it’s obvious that self-harm is a coping strategy rife with dangerous consequences, and you might believe anyone who engages in that kind of behavior is foolish. But that attitude is tinged with judgment, and the last thing your child needs is shame from you.
Sentences like, “Why on earth would you do something like that?!” or, “This behavior is crazy!” might be running around inside your head, but you’d be wise not to let them out. Doing so will only make your child feel worse about themselves.
Instead, understand that your child is trying hard to cope with life in the best way they know how. Remember what it felt like to be their age. Consider that life is even harder today for teens than it likely was for you. Know that they are learning and growing and may need help navigating their big emotions. Try saying something like, “It seems like you’re struggling with some difficult feelings. It’s not easy being a teen. I’m here to listen and support you.”
Don’t punish. Do validate.
It might be confusing and terrifying to see your child has hurt themselves, and your initial instinct may be rooted in fear and the wish to exert control. That might show up as a desire to punish your child by giving them a consequence such as grounding them or taking away their screens.
Although it’s natural to want to feel a sense of power when you see your child behaving in a dangerous way, punishing them will work against you both. It will drive a wedge between you and your child, it will make your child feel even worse about themselves, and it will likely force your child to shut down communication and become sneakier about their self-harm practices.
Instead, validate the feelings your child is experiencing. Try saying something like, “It makes sense you’re feeling (blank) because of (blank).” Tell them you understand they’re hurting and that you’re there for them. Tell them you love them.
You might be amazed at how far these simple validating statements will go in terms of letting your child feel seen and understood. When you start with validation, your child sees you as a teammate, not an opponent. Defenses come down, and together, you can work toward healing.
Don’t hide. Do seek help.
You may feel embarrassed by your child’s self-harming behavior, and that might make you want to brush it under the rug. You might also worry about people judging you and your child, and that might make you keep the situation to yourself. But ignoring this dangerous behavior will not make it stop. And keeping it a secret will add to the shame that you and your child likely feel.
You may feel alone in dealing with this, but know you are not. Unfortunately, there are thousands of parents dealing with adolescent self-harm.
Instead, seek help. Self-harm is a coping strategy with significant consequences, and you do need to take it seriously. Try enlisting professional help for your child, such as a therapist or counselor. Read up on self-harm so that you understand why your child might be engaging in this behavior. Identify your own feelings about the situation, and talk to a trusted individual to help you process it all. Parenting a teen is not easy, and you deserve support, too.
Don’t hover. Do check in.
Once you know your child is self-harming, it’s natural to become hyper-vigilant out of fear that your child will cause lasting harm to themselves. That may look like you doing body checks or overreacting to typical teen drama.
This kind of hovering can make your child feel defensive and helpless, and it can cause them to act out even more since they don’t feel like you trust them.
Instead, check in with your child on a regular basis. Keep the communication lines open and relaxed.
It can be empowering for your teen to get to play a role in executing a safety plan. You can work with them to remove objects from the home that they could use to hurt themselves. Over time, your teen will see your calm and loving attention as a comfort, and they will be more likely to confide in you if they slip up and self-harm again.
Don’t blame yourself. Do keep learning and growing.
When you gave birth to that little bundle of joy, I’m sure you didn’t imagine having to parent an angst-filled teen who hurts themselves. It’s natural to wonder where you went wrong or how you could have prevented this from happening.
But here’s the truth: Your child is a unique individual, separate from you, and it’s impossible to keep them from hurting or from occasionally acting out in unhelpful ways. Blaming yourself adds a burden you truly don’t need.
Instead, keep learning and growing as a parent. That means exploring how your parenting techniques hurt or help your child and making changes as necessary. That means letting go of stigmas around mental illness. That means staying present and having faith in the future. That means seeing yourself and your child as beautiful, flawed, works-in-progress.
If you or your child are in crisis or you are concerned about suicidal behavior, help is available 24/7 by calling 988 or texting 741-741.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
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