Here are a few tips on what to do if you discover that your child has non-suicidal, self-injurious behaviours.
Despite what some may believe, self-harm is not a trend. It is not a means to seek attention or validation. Rather, it is a way of finding relief from painful emotions. It is a strategy that is used when unpleasant thoughts run rampant. It is an approach that creates an unhealthy pattern of behaviour to cope through moments in time that feel unbearable.
What does the research say?
Research finds about one in four girls and one in 10 boys – regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs, or socio-economic status, engage in self-harming behaviours to manage their emotional pain.
What is NSIB?
Non-suicidal, self-injurious behaviours (NSIB for short) include cutting/scratching one’s skin, banging one’s head against the wall, burning oneself, physically harming others or damaging property with one’s body, etc., to gain relief from overwhelming, unpleasant, and painful emotions.
NSIBs are used to shut out negative feelings and relieve stress experienced by your teen. When parents find out that their child engages in self-injurious behaviour, fright consumes them and their internal alarm system fires up. Parents have a range of reactions to this discovery, from hiding all objects that their child could use to inflict harm upon themselves to keeping their child within their line of sight as often as possible, to considering psychiatric hospitalisation or at times to ignore the reality, hoping that it will go away on its own.
Here are some parenting tips that you need to consider if your child is engaging in self-harm:
Discovering that your child is self-injuring will bring up feelings from helplessness to guilt, grief, and even anger. It is important that parents approach their child from a calm place. Parents have to take a moment to process things, as well as the child, who may fear that they are in trouble.
Many parents fear that self-injury is a suicide attempt. While children may feel suicidal and it is something that needs to be discussed, self-injury itself is not a suicide attempt. It is important as a parent to do your best not to panic.
Do your best to regulate your emotions before speaking with your child. Healing your child will take time and patience. Recovery won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that time is often on the parents’ side
To open the conversation, consider leading with curiosity. Ask questions. Seek to understand how self-injury helps your child feel different and the purpose that it holds in your kid’s life. Doing so will allow you both to have the space to create a meaningful conversation with one another. Be mindful. Many teenagers will probably be very scared that their parents found out.
To foster your child being honest about their experience, consider letting them know that they are not in trouble and acknowledge how they may be afraid to have this kind of conversation with you. True confessions: There is a possibility that you’ll approach this conversation with your child in a skilful way and find that you are met with resistance from them.
Your child may shut down, your child may yell, your child may cry. There is a possibility that your kid will refuse to speak with you about it due to fear, shame, embarrassment, or a variety of other reasons. In this situation, while it seems counter-intuitive, allowing children an appropriate amount of space will encourage them to open up.
This is a serious issue best supported by a qualified professional. If your family doesn’t already see a therapist, call a few to find one who works with adolescents who self-injure. A therapist will help create an open environment for the child to learn ways to cope with negative emotions. Young people need immediate alternatives for moments of crisis, as well as lifelong emotional regulation skills. A therapist will also help them explore underlying issues, including trouble at school, mental illness, or other stressors such as trauma and abuse that they are experiencing.
Parents should consider seeking professional help for themselves as well. As much as it is important to not shame the child who is engaging in self-injurious behaviour, it’s also important for the parent to practise being non-judgemental and not shaming themselves as a parent.
Be a good role model
At a developmentally appropriate level, let your child see when you are hurting or struggling. Express your emotions using words and show them how you handle feelings (pleasant or unpleasant) effectively. Whether that’s taking time and space to cool down, or crying a little. Children will soak up this information, even if it doesn’t stick right away. In this way, parents play an active role in their child’s recovery by modelling healthy, adaptive ways of managing emotions. The journey of recovery – for the teen and their parent, is a process. Healing your child will take time and patience. Recovery won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that time is often on the parents’ side.
Developmentally speaking, neurologically speaking, physiologically speaking, a teenager is moving toward better brain integration as they mature. Their emotions are going to feel less turbulent to them and less overwhelming as they get older. Adolescents who self-injure can recover, particularly if their parents stay calm upon finding out about the behaviour, when they intentionally lead with curiosity and care, and when they connect their child (and themselves) with professional support.
Parents who practise skilful ways to handle emotions help their children in their recovery, too.