No parent wants to ask the question, “How do I know if my child is self-injuring?”
Parents and loved ones want to know the signs because they never want their child to face the cruel enemy called self-harm.
Massive research has been done and it indicates that many who self-injure do so in secrecy and this secrecy is often the clearest red flag that something is wrong.
Although it is normal for people to pull away during times of high involvement with friends or stress, it is not normal for teens to be withdrawn, both physically and emotionally, for long periods of time.
It is also important to note that “not all people who self-injure become distant and withdrawn.” Some who put on a happy face, even when they do not feel happy, may also be at risk for self-injury or other behaviors deemed negative. Some signs include:
- Cut or burn marks on arms, legs or abdomen
- Discovery of hidden razors, knives, other sharp objects, and rubber bands (which may be used to increase blood flow or numb the area)
- Spending long periods of time alone, particularly in the bathroom or bedroom
- Wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather, such as long sleeves or pants in hot weather
If you learn your child or loved one is self-injuring, emotions from shock, anger, sadness, or guilt may try to engulf you.
Cornell Research Program suggests:
- Shock and denial – because self-injury is a secretive behavior, it may be shocking to learn that your child is intentionally hurting him or herself. However, to deny the behavior is to deny your child’s emotional distress.
- Anger and frustration – you may feel angry or frustrated that your child has possibly lied to you about their injuries or because you see the behavior as pointless. As one parent said, “There is a frustration in terms of that little voice in the back of your mind that is saying ‘just stop it.’ It’s very hard, I think knowing more about the condition and about the underlying factors makes it easier to push that little voice away.”
- Empathy, sympathy, and sadness – though empathy helps you to understand your child’s situation, sympathy and sadness can sometimes be condescending because they imply that your child needs to be pitied. These feelings may also hinder your ability to understand the behavior.
- Guilt – you may feel as if you did not offer enough love and attention to your child. Although your actions can influence your child’s behavior, you do not cause their self-injury.
Studies note that you can never control another person’s behavior, even your child’s, and trying to do only make things worse.
Still, talking with your child is still of utmost importance. Many studies include these suggestions:
- Address the issue as soon as possible. Don’t presume that your child will simply “outgrow” the behavior and that it will go away on its own. Though, this can and does happen for some – as some do “outgrow” their self-injury. This typically occurs because they learn more adaptive ways of coping
- Try to use your concern in a constructive way, by helping them realize the impact of their self-injury on themselves and others
- It is most important to validate their feelings. Remember that this is different from validating the behavior. Parents must first make eye contact and be respectful listeners before offering their opinion. Speak in calm and comforting tones and offer reassurance. Consider what was helpful to you as an adolescent when experiencing emotional distress.
- If they do not want to talk, do not pressure them. Self-injury is a very emotional subject and the behavior itself is often an indication that your child has difficulty verbalizing their emotions.
To help your child or loved one understand the severity of this kind of injury, recognize that direct questions may feel invasive and frightening at first, particularly when coming from someone who is close. It is most productive to focus first on helping them to acknowledge the problem and the need for help. Here are a few examples:
- “How do you feel before you self-injure? How do you feel after you self-injure?” Retrace the steps leading up to an incident of self-injury—the events, thoughts, and feelings
- “How does self-injury help you feel better?”
- “What is it like for you to talk with me about hurting yourself?”
- “Is there anything that is really stressing you out right now that I can help you with?”
- “Is there anything missing in our relationship, that if it were present, would make a difference?”
- “If you do not wish to talk to me about this now, I understand. I just want you to know that I am here for you. Is it okay if I check in with you about this or would you prefer to come to me?”
Most studies agree that the following behaviors can actually increase self-injury behaviors: yelling, lecturing, put-downs, harsh and lengthy punishments, invasions of privacy (i.e., going through your child’s bedroom without their presence), ultimatums or threats.
Avoid power struggles, as “you cannot control another person’s behavior and demanding that your loved one stop self-injuring is generally unproductive,” various reports agree.
The following statements are examples of unhelpful things to say: “I know how you feel.” (This can make them feel as if their problems are trivialized), “How can you be so crazy to do this to yourself?” or “You are doing this to make me feel guilty.”
One teen shared this about her parents: “They freaked and made me promise not to do it again. I said yes just to make them feel better though. That settled everything for them. I felt hurt that they did not take me serious and get me help.”
People must take their loved ones seriously.
Suggestions from other websites include: http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/factsheet_coping_ alternatives.asp, http://www.sfys.infoxchange.net.au/resources/public/items/2004/12/00131-upload-00001.doc (Appendix M), http://www.nchs.org.au/Docs/SelfHarm_StuInfoPack.pdf and www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/factsheet_personal_stories.asp.
For Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, an initial appointment can be scheduled by callingor contacting Craig County Health Center as well as the individuals Primary Care Physician for referrals to mental health supports.
If in crisis, of course, “911” should be called or the person should be taken to the Emergency Room. Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare’s 24-Hour Crisis Hotline is 540-981-9351.
All sources, including Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, encourage parents that there is hope and to keep up the fight for their loved ones. Many survive with tremendous testimonies and they are then able to help others.