Cutting & Other Self-Harm: What every parent needs to know

Every parent’s worst nightmare is their child being hurt. From baby gates to GPS tracking apps, parents spend lots of time and money on making sure their kids are safe. But what about when their child is the one inflicting the pain? When a child deliberately injures their body without the intention of dying, it is called Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). Shockingly, NSSI is a growing problem that usually starts in children between the ages of 12 & 14. Teens who resort to NSSI have trouble expressing their emotions in healthy ways. So how can parents reach these kids and help them find safer ways to cope?

If you suspect your child may be at risk for NSSI, here are some things you should know:

1. Clothes can be clues

Common methods of NSSI include skin cutting, scratching, burning, and self-battery, all of which usually leave visible wounds or bruises. If you notice your child wearing sweatshirts in the summer heat, excessive bandages, or chunky wristbands every day, it could be a clue that they are covering up self-injury. Another indication is if they avoid activities that expose much skin such as swimming.

2. It’s not the same as suicide

Any parent would be rightfully scared if their child injured themselves in any way, but it’s important to understand that a child using NSSI does not mean that they want to die. When people want to end their life, they often seek out the most painless way possible. Those who use NSSI on the other hand, often seek pain to distract from their emotional distress, but do so believing that their injuries are not life-threatening. Though it should come as some relief that teens using NSSI usually don’t want to die, professional help should be sought for any type of self-harm. Accidental suicide can result from NSSI and in some cases people who use NSSI have a history of suicide attempts.

If you are concerned that someone you love may be at risk for suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text SOS to the national Crisis Text Line at 741741

3. They self-harm for a reason

Psychologists know that all behaviors have a function – meaning no matter what a person does, there is something they feel that they are benefitting from it. So what do teens who use NSSI feel that they are getting out of hurting themselves? The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that people usually resort to NSSI for one or more of the following 3 reasons:

  • To obtain relief from a negative feeling or cognitive state e.g. stress, worry thoughts, loneliness, emptiness
  • To resolve interpersonal conflict e.g family arguments, divorce, sibling rivalry, peer conflict
  • To induce a positive feeling state e.g euphoria, decrease numbness

Their feelings of relief occur during or shortly after the act of self-injury. Understanding why your child is resorting to NSSI can help in guiding you toward the solution.

4. It can be a symptom of other disorders

NSSI can be a stand-alone problem, but it can also be a symptom of other disorders. Conditions that NSSI has been associated with include borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, bipolar disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If a teen shows self-harming behavior, it’s important that they be evaluated by a specialist to determine if they have a mental health diagnosis and need treatment.

5. Criticism will backfire

Trying to guilt or criticize a child out of self-harm won’t work. Often times, they are hurting themselves because of feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. You don’t have to coddle them or let them get away with everything, but try to focus most of your comments on praising their talents and positive traits.

6. How you respond matters

It’s common for a parent to feel shock, sadness, or fear when they learn their child is harming themselves. Try not to let those emotions show, as that will make your child hesitant to openly talk to you about what they’re dealing with. Ask them how their self-harm has helped them (refer back to the functions of NSSI in point #3). Listen with love and respond without judgement. Let them know that you are there for them, but also let them know if you plan to seek the help of a specialist.

7. Emotional intelligence is key

While you can’t prevent your child from dealing with hardships in life, you do have the power to teach them how to cope with challenges in healthy ways. Emotional intelligence refers to how a person understands and copes with their emotions. Nurturing your child’s emotional intelligence, as well as working on growing your own, can improve communication and healthy expression in your family.

Click here to read our blog on fostering emotional intelligence in your child

8. You are part of the solution

If your child is harming themselves, it’s natural to wonder where you went wrong as a parent. The fact that you are reading this blog shows that you love and care for your child, and you should know that there are many different factors that can contribute to a child resorting to NSSI. A specialist in child psychology will not judge you or your child, but will help identify the challenges your teen is facing, teach your family healthy strategies moving forward, and support you in mending a strong bond.

9. Variations can help

Teen years are tough on both parents and children. Many parents find that they need a little outside help in supporting their teens during these turbulent years. There have been several therapy methods that have successfully reduced self-harming behaviors. If your child or teen has used NSSI, the specialists at Variations Psychology can help.