TW: This post discusses self-harm and suicide. If you or a loved one are in need of immediate help, please contact the Crisis Support Hotline at 1 (800) 811-4760 for confidential mental health services, available 24/7.
For a parent or guardian who has noticed signs their child may be self-harming, you may feel overwhelmed with fear and concern. The concept of self-harm is surrounded with stigma of being a “cry for attention” and has been inaccurately portrayed in movies, TV shows, and other pop culture outlets, which may leave you searching for answers and resources to find help.
If you believe your child or teenager may be engaging in self-harm, one of the best things you can do is to learn more about the feelings they may be experiencing and how to approach them with compassion.
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm refers to an individual hurting themselves on purpose. This behavior is seen in persons from all walks of life. These individuals may have experienced trauma or be dealing with intense emotions, but that is not always the case. Teenagers and individuals who are living with a mental health condition such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also be at risk for engaging in self-injury.
Common self-harm behaviors include:
- Cutting, scratching, or burning skin
- Hitting or punching
- Inserting needles or other objects under skin
- Pulling hair
- Picking at the skin and/or wounds
Although self-harm can happen with suicidal thoughts, it is typically defined by hurting oneself without suicidal intent. Regardless, these injuries can be serious and even life-threatening. Thankfully, mental health care can help address the painful emotions they are trying to navigate.
Warning Signs: Symptoms of Self Injury
A person who is self-injuring may experience feelings of guilt and shame and attempt to conceal their actions. As a parent, your gut feeling that “something is off” may be the first warning sign you notice. Other warning signs to look out for are:
- Cuts, bruises, scratches or burn marks
- Keeping sharp objects on hand
- Wearing long sleeves or pants in hot weather
- Emotional outbursts and impulsive behavior
- Withdrawing from relationships
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
Many of us know someone who is notoriously clumsy or prone to bruising. But if your young adult child is frequently showing signs of injury without explanation, or with explanations that seem suspicious and unlikely, it is important to be pay attention to the possible warning signs.
Self-injury should never be dismissed as a cry for attention or a phase your loved one will grow out of. Connecting your child to a mental health resource can help them learn healthy coping skills for intense emotions and help reduce the risk of a serious injury.
How to Help Someone Who is Self-Harming
1. Process your feelings.
Parents commonly feel overwhelmed by the discovery that their child may be self-harming. You may experience shock, fear, anger, confusion, sadness, or even disgust. For this reason, it is important to process your feelings before initiating a discussion with your child. Avoid acting out in the heat of the moment as much as possible.
To help you achieve a calmer mindset, consider journaling or going for a walk before you approach your loved one. If you decide to do some research online, take time to decompress and digest everything you have read before starting a discussion.
2. Create a safe space.
Before you have a serious conversation with your teenager, do a quick scan to determine whether or not you are in an appropriate setting. Offer them the privacy of meeting in a quiet area with minimal distractions, such as their bedroom.
There are other verbal and nonverbal elements of creating a space where your child feels safe and respected, as well as behaviors to avoid. To help create a safe space, do not:
- Yell or raise your voice excessively
- Make threats, accusations or ultimatums
- Engage in distractions, such as checking your phone
- Center the conversation on yourself
- Mock feelings or behaviors which you do not understand
3. Gently express concern.
Try to maintain a calm and gentle approach. Your teenager or young adult child is more likely to engage in a conversation where they do not feel provoked.
Remember, the ultimate goal of this conversation is to discuss the feelings and emotions your loved one is struggling with. While it is typically helpful to mention you are worried and coming from a place of love, try to avoid centering the conversation entirely on your feelings. Your child likely does not have the emotional capacity to take on your own feelings of guilt and sadness.
4. Offer nonjudgmental support and a listening ear.
It is important to let your loved one know you are someone they can trust. If they are willing to discuss their experience with self-harm, do not be afraid to let them guide the conversation. Your role is to be an active listener and to listen to their perspectives without judgment — even if the conversation is uncomfortable.
If your child is unwilling to open up, try to use gentle and encouraging prompts, such as, “How are you doing?” and “How can I support you right now?”
5. Make a plan to get help.
Seeking help for a mental health condition can be a humbling experience, and your minor child may feel scared about the road ahead. Make sure they know you will be there to support them throughout the treatment process, including participating in family therapy sessions together. If your loved one is 18 years or older, offer to help find a therapist and to drive them to the appointment.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis and need after-hours support, please contact the 24-hour Crisis Support Hotline at 1 (800) 811-4760.
Find a Path to Healing at Places for People
Places for People offers outpatient therapy for children and young adults who are experiencing intense emotions and engaging in self-injury. As the only certified community behavioral health organization in St. Louis City or County, Places for People is uniquely qualified to support both individuals and families with a child or teenager in need of mental health care.
Our team is committed to meeting people on their journey to healing without judgment or criticism. We also offer a variety of payment and coverage options to eliminate any potential barriers to providing services for those in need.
This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a licensed health care professional. Always seek the advice of a licensed professional for any questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health, or the health of a loved one.