Responding to cutting and other self injurious behaviors, How can a parent help? By Tiffany Leuthold, LMFT

Dec 16, 2013 by Tiffany Leuthold, LMFT

Parents and caregivers wonder what they can do when they discover their teen or young adult is struggling with self-injury.   Self-injury also referred to as self-harm involves burning, cutting or purposely inflicting injury.  Parenting in the face of self-injury involves building up your loved one’s support system and responding to the problem in a calm and understanding manner.

There are many reasons an individual self-injures.  Self-injury indicates that the person is dealing with problems such as anger, bullying, sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, depression or anxiety and looking for relief.   Looking for relief is different than being suicidal.  Though an individual that self-injures may be also be struggling with suicidal thoughts or plans, self-injury does not always mean they want to end their life.  One teen explained that cutting provided a way of feeling or letting go of pain.

What you can do:

In your home and during interactions, try to respond to your child in ways that draw your child to you rather than cause them to retreat or push you away.  Talk with them and allow their emotions to take center stage.  If you are scared, mad or sad find support from someone other than your child.  Show your child that you are curious about what is going on that may be leading to the self-injury.  Curiosity comes across as genuine and non-judgmental.  Ask questions you don’t know the answer to situate in curious stance.  For example, you might ask….“when did you start to cut or do you want to stop cutting?”

Remove objects that they may be using to harm themselves from the home.  This alone may not end the self-injury as they may find other objects to use.  However, it sends the message that you are against the self-injury.  They may get angry but teens confide that they would continue to cut if their parents had not removed the objects they used.  You may need to check and periodically recheck their room and/or bathroom for hidden objects.

Self-injury provides a visual sign that your loved one is struggling with other problems. Take the sign and respond with understanding and objective interventions. Enlist the help of a professional.  If your child is engaging in self-injury, they will need support to develop new ways to cope with the problems they are experiencing as well as to reduce and stop the self-injury.   You may need help learning parenting interventions.  The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) provides a therapist locator tool that can be found at  PrairieCare offers free needs assessments to determine what level of care is recommended (medication, therapy, group therapy, in-patient or partial hospitalization).  Click here for more information about a free needs assessment.

With family support and professional help they can recover.

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