No one is ever ready to find out that their child self-harms. To discover that your son or daughter has been struggling through a pain so deep that they've turned to cutting or burning themselves instead of talking to you is a heartbreaking and scary place to be as a parent.
We used to think of self-harm as something teenagers did in the years when their hormones are all out of whack, making them prone to irrational hysteria. Well, that's a cultural myth that needs to be corrected. The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery reported that self-harm "can start early in life. Research suggests that for those with early onset, self-injury may start around the age of 7."
However, "middle adolescence," between the ages of 12 and 15, is when most kids begin to self-harm. We spoke to Kati Morton, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who makes vlogs on mental health. She speaks directly to kids and teens about serious issues - eating disorders, sexual abuse, mood disorders - in a relatable and understanding way.
She concedes that self-harm can be addictive "because of the release of endorphins and adrenaline that accompanies self-harming." However, she's adamant that "with proper therapy and support, they can overcome the urges and find other healthy coping skills to replace the unhealthy ones."
To figure out how to stop your child from harming themselves, you have to first figure out why they do it in the first place...
Why do kids cut themselves?
Not a cry for attention but a way to deal with things
Many people still consider self-harm a melodramatic way to get attention while ignoring the fact that it is often done behind closed doors. Young people who hurt themselves don't do it for show, and they also go through great lengths to hide it from their loved ones.
Kati clears up that wrongful misconception. "Self-harm is a coping skill. It is something that people of all ages use as a way to deal with pain," she begins. "Think of it as an outward expression of inward pain. They can get a sort of high or release from it and it can help them numb out or get through tough emotional issues."
In an effort to ward away painful feelings, some of us turn to music and movies; others turn to self-injury.
Self-harm covers up emotional trauma
Many experiences trigger self-injury. "The most common of those being, trauma and/or abuse as well as depression," Kati explains.
Sexual assault, eating disorders, bullying, and unpredictable mood swings invoke intense feelings of anger, shame, and insecurity. "These struggles paired with the lack of healthy coping skills that have been taught or shown to them and without someone they can trust and talk to" can result in harmful behavior.
Suicide is not the goal
Even though self-injury can result in hospital visits, suicide is typically not the desired outcome of self-harm. "Some are suicidal, but the majority of people are not," Kati asserts.
"I find you can ask them point blank if they were trying to kill themselves and they will answer honestly. Usually self-harm injuries are not just in places where people try and kill themselves (wrists, necks etc) they are all over and most likely in places that are easy to hide."
It's a coping strategy that's hard to break
Once kids and teens start associating self-harm with release and clarity the behavior becomes habitual. Kati admits that the reasons for why people continue to self-harm "vary so much from person to person."
But in her experience, "the most common reasons are that they like the adrenaline rush it gives them and they become addicted to that feeling. Some are hoping to show those around them how much they are hurting on the inside, and lastly, many enjoy watching the blood. It is cathartic to them in some way."
Don't let your denial miss any common signs
You hope that your children feel comfortable talking to you about anything...but you were a kid once. Deep down you know that at certain ages sometimes it seemed easier to try to solve problems on your own without any parental guidance.
Well, as a parent, if you think your child is pulling away with little explanation, don't ignore the signs Kati describes below:
"Long sleeves, lots of watches or bracelets, refusal to go swimming or to the beach with the family, wearing warmer clothing than the weather requires. Pretty much any extra attempt to hide their body."
Self-harm is scary but don't overreact
When you do find out your child is self-harming, it's easy to let your concern and worry present itself as anger - and Kati empathizes with that reaction.
"I know it is really hard to remain calm, but know that if you can, you have a better likelihood of being involved in their recovery and their process," she maintains.
"Shaming, scolding, and overreacting" are all very inappropriate responses. "This is one time when you don’t want them to shut you out. It can be a healing process for all of you."
Listen first, act later
"Seek to understand," suggests Kati. "Usually the biggest concern of my clients is that they will be scolded or taken to the psychiatric ward. Tell them you would like to understand what is going on and how you can help. Let them guide you. If you are patient, they will."
Suggest alternative ways to handle emotions
After your child opens up and reveals the extent of their self-injury, don't back away out of fear or confusion. Again, self-harm is how some kids cope so gently suggest other ways they can release emotions.
Kati recommends journaling. "Whether they do it in video form or typed online in a blog. I would also try something artistic. It could be music, collaging, painting, sketching, dance etc. Giving them a new way to express how they are feeling can be a great outlet. Lastly, therapy. It can be a safe place where your child can vent and express themselves as much as they need."
Take a stand on harmful social media communities
"There is definitely a dark side to all social media these days," Kati says. Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram have certainly been safe spaces for kids and teens who self-harm to receive support. "People find other like-minded people and, for once, don’t feel alone. I think when they are...encouraging one another to make healthier choices it is great."
However, there is a trend in "sort of egging each other on to [self-injury]" that, Kati proclaims, has to end.
"Glamorizing mental illness and supporting someone in getting purposefully worse is a terrible side effect of social media." When your child confides in you about their cutting or burning, gently ask if there are sites they visit that provoke their urge to self-harm. Express your need to block these sites as a necessary way to begin healing.
The final word...
For those of you reading this piece who are engaging in self-harm and don't know how to stop, support and understanding are out there.
"You are not alone," Kati says. "I know it can feel like you are stuck in a dark hole all alone, but trust me - others have been where you are and there are so many people who care about you and who want to support you. You can overcome the urges and get past this.
"Recovery is a process, not perfection, so be patient with yourself and know that you will get through this. You are worth the fight."
If you need help or someone to listen, please visit S.A.F.E.Safe Alternatives For Stopping Self Abuse or call the hotline at 1–800-DONT-CUT (366–8288)
How has self-harm affected your family? Tweet us @wewomenUSA!
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