Part II - How to Respond to Your Self-Harming Teen
My name is Erica, and I'm a new counselor here at Charlotte Women's Counseling. I interned here from 2021 to 2022 and am now back to work full-time! I specialize in working with adolescents ages 13-18 and young adults. I have availability starting in September 2022; feel free to book with me on our website!
If you're new to this series, be sure to read Part I - Understanding Your Self-Harming Teen. This three-part series addresses some of the questions you might be asking yourself so that you can understand and support your child through this difficult time. Part one will help you understand the motivation behind self-harm and why your child might have a difficult time stopping. Part two will help you open a conversation with your child about self-harm so that you can position yourself as their ally rather than their adversary. Part three will give you practical strategies and tools for helping your child to stop self-harming.
So, I found out that my teenager is intentionally harming themselves. How am I supposed to respond to that?
You are likely experiencing a lot of strong emotions because of finding out that your child has been hurting themselves—sadness, fear for your child’s safety, and maybe even anger. These emotions are completely understandable, but we still need to make sure that your reactions are tempered and ultimately help your child feel supported. Here are some dos and don’ts to help guide your interactions.
Don’t: yell, criticize, or punish. Your child is not trying to be defiant or disobey you when they self-harm, even if they already told you they would stop. They just feel out of control and are doing what they know how to do to soothe their pain. If you criticize them for self-harming by saying things like, “That’s such a stupid thing to do,” or “You’re going to have those scars for the rest of your life,” your child is likely to feel worse about themselves and, paradoxically, this may increase the self-harming frequency or severity. Punishment does not reduce self-harming; it just teaches your child to hide the behavior from you and discourages them from coming to you for help.
Do: respond as calmly as you are capable. Reassure your child that you are there to help, to listen, and to provide support whenever and however they need it. Offer yourself as someone they can talk to, and when they do come to you, ask “Do you need help, advice, or just someone to listen?” Encourage them to come to you at any time—even if it’s the middle of the night (a lot of people feel at their lowest at nighttime, and this is when they will likely feel tempted to self-harm). The best thing you can do is often just to be present with your child, even if you’re not saying anything.
What if I've already responded in a not-so-helpful way?
Actually, this is a perfect opportunity for something that will deeply strengthen your relationship with your child: repair work. If you have already had conversations with your child about their self-harming that didn’t go so well, acknowledge that with them! “I’m sorry for how I reacted before. I was feeling scared and overwhelmed, and I didn’t handle myself very well. I want you to know that I’m here to support you, and I’ll try my best to respond better in the future.”
This is a hard thing to handle, and if you didn’t get it right the first time, don’t beat yourself up about it. If there are feelings of guilt and shame coming up, acknowledge that and process those feelings with a partner, a friend, or even a therapist. Just don't let those feelings stop you from trying again! If conversations like these are out of your comfort zone and you’re struggling to get the hang of it, that’s okay. Just keep trying with your goal in mind: creating a space where your child feels safe coming to you for help. The key to repair work is taking ownership of your emotions, however uncomfortable that feels, and trying to do better next time.
Common Phrases You Might Hear From Your Child, and How You Can Respond
"You don't understand."
Suggested response: You’re right, I don’t
have any experience with this. But I’m
willing to listen and support you in any way
"It helps me."
Suggested response: I understand that
you’re hurting and that you’re just trying to
cope. I have some other ideas about how
to help you do that that are healthier.
"I've tried stopping; I can't."
Suggested response: I know you’re feeling stuck and like there’s no other way to handle what you’re
feeling. I’m hoping that with my support, you can give it another tr