Parents are uniquely affected by a child's self-injury. It can look and feel so much like a suicidal gesture that most parents experience deep fear and, quite often, anger. Virtually all parents feel the sense of frustration and helplessness that the parent below describes. So, I thought I would share this parent's question and my response in hope that it helps other parents out there in a similar situation.
I’m wondering if you can offer any advice about my daughter… She has been self-injuring on and off for a couple of years now, and I feel pretty confused about what to do next. It seems like she gets it under control, and then it comes back up again. I feel frustrated seeing her go through this and feeling helpless about how to stop it. She doesn’t like to talk with me about her self-injury—she gets annoyed when I bring it up and says I don’t understand her. I’m feeling isolated because I don’t know who to go to for help, and I scrutinize my parenting decisions as well as my daughter’s life and her choices. She seems stuck in this pattern and I’m unsure what to do. Please let me know what you think.
A Concerned Mom
Dear Concerned Mom,
Wow, what a journey you have been on! It’s understandable that you would feel confused; I imagine that the only person who experiences more confusion than you in this situation is your child. In addition to facing deep feelings that may not have been thought about or recognized, your child is entering a phase of very rapid neurological and physical changes – this causes highs and lows unlike anything else we experience over the life course. I have no idea where the truth lies in the each of your interpretations about what is happening, but I do think that it would be great if your child saw a therapist once a week to help navigate through all of this. Rather than saying that you have someone for them to talk to, I would look for someone (or more than one – road testing is always good since client-therapist fit is important) together and let your child know that you’d really like to give them another person to lean on. Let your child know that counselors are great for this since they have to hold everything (except abuse or suicidality) confidential, and they are outsiders in the family, which can be really great since this allows them to have a non-biased perspective and to really understand their clients. In other words, I would make it very easy and appealing for your child to see a therapist. You cannot force it, obviously (except if you are really worried and seeing someone becomes a condition you impose. Not ideal, but it can work if things start to spiral), but you can open the door and make it really easy to walk through. If your child does not walk through that door now, keep the door open as your child may have a change of heart. Persistence is one thing that parents have that children really benefit from since each developmental stage is so different.
Other than this, it is also sometimes really helpful if a self-focused and struggling teen can get involved in something that allows them to give to or focus on other people (or plants or animals—anything outside of the self). Any programs that permit your child to do service or work as an apprentice in some area of interest can be great for building self-esteem and positive feelings. Your child may be in a funky space for awhile—the changes often go on for a few years (though the behavior stuff may shift)—so encouraging your child to continue to look for opportunities to get connected and involved with others and to shift the focus from thinking about life or social woes and school will all be helpful.
Lastly, you need support as much as your child does. You will be best able to really hang in there for the long haul if you have someone to talk to and to bounce things off of. Even if your child is not willing to see someone, I strongly encourage you to find either a therapist or parent group of some sort where you can bring concerns, ideas, issues, whatever and ask for other people’s reflections and experience. It really helps!
Ultimately, your child has to take agency for and in their own life. This is your child’s journey and responsibility. There really is nothing you can do to make things better for your child from the inside (the mind and heart, that is). Where parents really matter is in a) modeling healthy emotional management, authentic living, and positive thinking, b) maintaining positive but reasonable expectations, c) opening doors whenever you can and inviting kids through (and then accepting their “no” with as much grace as possible and without getting so discouraged that you stop opening the doors), and MOST importantly, d) taking care of themselves in real ways. This means being gentle with yourself when you feel like you have blown it or done / said something you did not want to do/say and putting your own needs in front when it is clearly your turn to take time and space to self-nurture.
I really wish I had some piece of advice guaranteed to make it all better. Remember that you have time and that this, too, will pass. The more peace you can find in your own heart, the more your child is likely to sense that and then to want to know what that peace feels like. The greatest gift you have to offer your child is offering what you most want for her/him to yourself. I know it sounds odd, but it really works – particularly good for kids since they watch us so, so closely. The more they see and feel how you do it; they are much more likely to be able to mimic you.
Hope this helps some.