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For Parents: Coping With A Child Who Self-Injures

It's difficult dealing with the concept of your child self-injuring. How do you deal with that and how can you help?

Aim for long-term stability, not a quick solution

As a parent, you must come to terms with the importance of understanding why your troubled teen engages in self-harm. Knowing the reason why your teen self-injures can be the first step towards guiding your adolescent away from this detrimental coping method and help you lead him/her towards healthier means of coping with feelings.

It is difficult to be the parent of a teenager engaging in self-harm. You know that your child's physical well-being is at stake and because of this you want him/her to give up such harmful behavior as soon as possible. But trying to force wellness and rushing treatment of such a disorder can prove to be counter-productive, says Wendy Lader, Ph.D., founder of S.A.F.E. Alternatives, a residential program for self-injurers. "From here, a battle of forces can ensue between child and parent/therapist which may bring even more struggle to your teen's table. Now, he/she must not only deal with inward struggle of the self but struggle with an outward force as well. This can feel like chaos for one suffering from self-harm."

Instead, it is vital to aim for long-term stability and not just the quickest path to what may be short-term wellness. Initially, the conceptualization of a treatment plan to combat a self-injurer's impulses can be the foundation for future stability and offer significant help.

If you have a friend or relative who engages in self-harm, it can be very distressing and confusing for you. You may feel guilty, angry, scared, powerless, or any number of things.

Some general guidelines are:

- Take the self-harm seriously by expressing concern and encouraging the individual to seek professional help.

- Don't get into a power struggle with the individual. Ultimately, they need to make the choice to stop the behavior. You cannot force them to stop.

- Don't blame yourself. The individual who is self-harming initiated this behavior and needs to take responsibility for stopping it.

- If the individual who is self-harming is a child or adolescent, make sure the parent or a trusted adult has been informed and is seeking professional help for them.

If the individual who is engaging in self-harm does not want professional help because he or she doesn't think the behavior is a problem, inform them that a professional is the best person to make this determination. Suggest that a professional is a neutral third party who will not be emotionally invested in the situation and so will be able to make the soundest recommendations.

--From the Self Injury and Other Issues (SIARI) website

Address the deep-seated issues of the self-injurer

The key idea behind the treatment of self-harm is showing the afflicted person other ways that he/she may deal with stress in a healthy way. Whatever deep issues lie beneath his/her everyday problems, they should be addressed in psychotherapy or guided talks with a parent. Because of these points, it may be more beneficial for a troubled teen if he is out facing reality, and not just hospitalized every time he/she acts up. Vernick suggests that parents should look to hospitalization as one of the last options, used only when he/she is dealing with suicide attempts or acute self-injury.

The key to the resolution of any issue is to get to the heart of the issue. And the best way to get to the heart of the issue is through a relationship....one that says to them, "I'll walk with you through anything, and I'll stand in front of you if you're moving to a place that you don't want to be". That's the easy part. The hard part is taking apart the puzzle and seeing the logic, progression, thinking, and habits have moved this cutter to where he/she is.

It's important to find out issues beneath the surface of self-injury. Usually, a combination of medication, counseling, therapy, group meetings, and parental support are required to help get a child through this difficult period.

Medical issues related to self-injury

Another important matter to consider is the physical wounds themselves, which are inflicted by the self-injurer. A number of self-injurers do not get the proper medical care for their wounds because of their fear of being judged by physicians or other medical staff. A female teen self-injurer recalls the look an attending physician gave her as he tended to her wounds—"The way he took a look at my wrists and then stared me back in the eye, just left me feeling like I wanted to curl up inside and hide."

Talk to your teen's therapist about letting medical practitioners in the local scene know more about self-injury to avoid situations like these that may aggravate your teenager's sensitive feelings further.

APA Reference
Writer, H. (2008, November 28). For Parents: Coping With A Child Who Self-Injures, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/self-injury/parents-coping-with-child-who-self-injures

Last Updated: May 29, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD