It’s never easy dealing with a child who is emotionally distraught, or worse, harming himself or herself. But as a parent or a guardian, it’s your duty to step in and help.
Almost 80 percent of self-harm involves stabbing or cutting the skin with a sharp object, but can also include burning, self-poisoning, and abuse of medication, drugs and alcohol. Those who self-harm usually do so on areas of the body that are easily concealed from others. If you are concerned about it, read on to find out why it happens, how to spot it and what to do about it.
Common among teens and young adults, those who self-harm may have a history of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse or are simply sensitive, perfectionist, overachievers. The self-injury begins as a defense against what’s going on in their family or in their lives, and they look at it as a means to get control. Some kids who are unable to manage the stresses of life are vulnerable to cutting. They are also likely to have an eating disorder, which could be a symptom for psychiatric problems like borderline personality disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia. Sometimes, people who self-injure are simply going through the adolescent struggle for self-identity, and are experimenting with forms of self-expression without realizing the dangerous consequences.
How To Spot It:
The late David Rosen, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan and director of the Section for Teenage and Young Adult Health at the University of Michigan Health Systems in Ann Arbor had offered parents these important tips:
- Look out for small, linear cuts, straight line, often parallel like railroad ties carved into forearm, the upper arm, sometimes the legs. Some people cut words into themselves. ‘Fat’ if they’re having body image issues, ‘stupid’ if they’re having trouble at school, or just words like ‘loser,’ ‘failure,’ or a big ‘L.’
- Sometimes, they blame unexplained cuts and scratches on pets or sharp objects.
- These kids often experience and exhibit drastic mood changes like depression or anxiety, out-of-control behavior, changes in relationships, communication, and school performance.
How To Stop It:
Most of the time, parents who suspect a problem are at a loss of how to approach their child. Follow these tips.
- Psychologists say it’s better to err on the side of open communication, since kids may talk when they’re ready. It’s better to open up the door, to let them know that you’re aware of the situation, that you’re not going to punish them, that you’re just concerned.
- Be direct with your child, but don’t act out of anger or let yourself become hysterical. Threatening to watch them every second, and not letting them go anywhere, will not help either.
- It’s alright to express concern and mention that you’re going to get help.
- Don’t mistake cutting for suicidal behavior, because it’s like any addiction. Teach them that cutting only works in the short term, and that it could get worse.
What Should My Child Do?
In situations when your child is self-harming, you can suggest these steps to them as alternative solutions to the problem. In the long run, they have to address the thoughts and feelings that result in self-harming behavior. Until they get help, they can do the following:
- Punch a pillow, or a punching bag.
- Squeeze ice cubes until the fingers go numb.
- Eat something spicy or something really hot.
- Have a cold shower.
- Draw or write in red over the body.
- Choose to put off harming yourself until you’ve spoken to someone, or waited for 15 minutes (and see if you can extend it for another 15 minutes beyond that, then continue to do it again and so on until the feeling passes).
- Write in a journal—sometimes, it can be really helpful to write down how you’re feeling and what is making you feel that way.
- Go for a run or walk in the park to use up excess energy.
- Playing video games may be a good way to distract yourself and help until the anxiety passes.
- Yell, or sing at the top of your lungs on your own, or to music. You might do this into a pillow if you don’t want other people in the house to hear.
- Activities like yoga or meditation are often helpful in reducing anxiety.
- Crying is a healthy and normal way to express your sadness or frustrations.
- Talk with a trusted friend or call a helpline.
Teens and young adults who learn to face their problems, will usually quit self-harming. Your goal should be to patiently and gently get them to communicate what’s wrong, instead of hurting themselves.