Self-Harm and Parents: Ways to Help Your Loved One
This is a guest blog from James Dauer, Licensed Mental Health Counselor. Mr. Dauer sees Behavioral Health patients at our Smokey Point location.
Not being able to help your struggling child is one of the hardest parts about being a parent, and when that struggle is self-inflicted, endless waves of feeling powerless and scared roll in one after another. Not a fun place to be!
Some parents have heard about cutting through various media but to others this subject is about as familiar as intergalactic weather patterns. When parents first discover their child is engaging in self-harm or a.k.a. “cutting” the immediate reaction is often shock, disbelief, or flat out protest.
Parents will usually make an attempt to quickly seek an explanation, Why? What sense does that make? What’s the purpose? Is this for attention? What did I do wrong? Are you mad at me? I like to ask: Why is it happening and what can be done about it?
For starters, let me shed some light a bit on how to understand self-harm or high-risk behavior, and why it happens. Self--harm behavior happens because it plays a valuable role in your child’s life. Destructive behavior is valuable? You may be questioning. Yes! Understanding this point is important.
Imagine your child cruising along in life and suddenly he finds himself with an intolerable internal state, and senses that he could do something immediately to escape it! By cutting himself he discovers how endorphins are released and a soothing sensation occurs, thus taking the edge off of a sunburned emotion system.
Your child will probably explain his behavior as the result of being a loser or failure. Instead of wallowing in pity together help your child understand that his behavior actually serves a legitimate purpose of trying to feel better. This is important because you want your child to know that even though the outcome of the behavior may be disastrous, his intention is not. As your child gains awareness that his behavior is linked to very painful emotional states, the door swings open to discussing alternative strategies to feeling better—and you get to play the role of the loving parent that you are!
But my child is so impulsive and doesn’t think before she acts! A common myth in our culture is that adolescents are impulsive. Behind every self-destructive act are a host of strategic thoughts of which some happen within seconds, extend throughout the day, week, or previous month: How do I feel? What should I do? Maybe this will make them care? Where will I stash it? Maybe this will make them think twice?
People of all ages that engage in intense and risky behavior all describe a sense of feeling compelled, because the behavior has a calming, emotionally organizing, or peer group bonding benefit to it, to name a few. The problem is your child may feel like she cannot resist the urge to self-harm, and as a result feels out of control, like it is happening to her, and this looks impulsive.
Helping your child identify her own stress levels just as you would hunger pangs, and creating a stress management or tension reduction plan before a crisis will help a lot. Not to have a plan is still a plan, but not a very good one!
- Work hard at understanding how the behavior makes sense to your loved one.
- Try coming up with alternative ways to pass the time skillfully when distress sets in.
- Consider seeing a counselor if you continue to have concerns: when it comes to cutting seeking help is never premature!
Do you have any recommendations on how to help someone struggling with self-harm?