Understanding Self-Injury: What Parents Need to Know

It can be very confusing and scary to find out that your child is engaging in self-injury. It can also be very overwhelming to try to make sense of this as a parent: Is this a suicide attempt? What is self-injury and what does it mean? Why would my child intentionally hurt himself/herself? Know that whatever feelings you may have are valid feelings and I hope that this post may help to navigate through these questions.

What is self-injury?
Non-suicidal self-injury is when a person injures themselves without the desire or intent to kill themselves. Therefore, it is very important to try to understand the “why” behind the self-injury. Although self-injury is separate from suicide and suicide attempts, it does significantly increase risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

There are many forms of self-injury, however, the most common are cutting, burning, banging or punching objects and embedding objects under the skin.

Self-injury is used as a coping strategy, even though it is an unhealthy one and is followed by negative consequences. Adolescents often use self-injury as a way of handling or responding to distress (e.g. anxiety, symptoms of depression, low self-esteem, etc.). I most often hear two main statements from adolescents who self-injure: 1. They are trying to deal with pain or 2. They feel numb and want to feel more. It is also reported that self-injury occurs when the individual is expressing negative feelings toward self. However, it is important to understand your child’s own reasons for his/her self-injury behaviors.

Is my child self-injuring?
One of the things that I always tell parents and teachers when talking about warning signs that something may be going on in a child’s life is to notice changes in behavior. You know your child best; trust your intuition.
Here are some warning signs that could indicate behaviors of self-injury:
• Isolating/withdrawing from family/friends
• Cuts, burns or marks on forearms, legs, and abdomen
• Hidden razors, blades, knives or other sharp objects
• Spending a lot of time alone in the bathroom or bedroom
• Wearing long sleeves or pants in hot weather

How can I help my child?
First, it is important that you do recognize your own feelings during this time. You want to try your best to process your own hurt and pain before you address your concerns with your child, but you do want to address it with your child as soon as possible. Try to talk to your child about their behavior, ask questions, validate your child’s feelings and show your child your concern for their wellbeing. Try to avoid yelling, lecturing and punishments.
Continue to help your child by allowing an environment for open communication, modeling healthy coping strategies, set aside family time, set appropriate rules and expectations, and ask your child how you can best help.

Finding treatment:
Remember that self-injury is a behavior that occurs when a child is in distress and could possibly benefit from counseling. Here are some ways you can find a counselor in your area:
Check in with your school counselor. They are often aware of the best resources available in your area for teens. They can also give insight into how your child is doing at school and may even be able to provide additional strategies to use.
Make an appointment with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will also be able to give you referrals for resources in your area.
Speak with a Licensed Counselor who specializes in teens. To find a list of counselors in your area, try PsychologyToday.Com

For more information on self-injury, here are some additional resources:
http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu
https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Self-harm
http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/self-injury

Feel free to leave comments or questions!

Heather

 

Photo Credit: Lucas Pimenta

***Blog disclaimer: This blog is for informational and educational purposes only. No therapist-client relationship arises. The information provided and any comments or opinions expressed are intended for general discussion and educational purposes only. They should not be relied upon for decision-making in any specific case. There is no substitute for consultation with a qualified mental health professional who could best evaluate and advice based on a careful evaluation. It is understood that no guarantee or warranty arises from the information provided or discussed on this blog.

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