Part III - How to Help Your Child to Stop Self-Harming
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.
What can I do to keep my child safe?
As their parent, you are uniquely qualified to help your child through this difficult time. Although the hope is to approach self-harming from a place of understanding, you can still take action to prevent it from happening again. The first step is removing the means through which your teenager is harming themselves—here are some tips for doing so in a constructive way.
Preface it with a conversation. Explain to your child that this is not a punishment, that you are not taking things away because you are upset or because you don’t care about how they’re feeling. You’re doing it to keep them safe, that’s all. Assure them that limited access to tools such as razors, curling irons, etc., is only temporary and that you will return them once you both agree that the risk of their misuse is low. In the meantime, these everyday items can be used for their intended purpose within a certain time frame, then stored in a safe place where your child cannot access them between intended uses. For example, if your teen wants to shave their legs, they may have their razor for the duration of their shower, after which time they must return the razor to you for safe keeping. Indicate that if self-harm occurs during these times, the ability to use the items even for their intended use will be suspended. Again, stress that these limitations are not intended to punish, but to protect.
Ask for your teenager’s cooperation in gathering the items they use to hurt themselves. This builds a spirit of collaboration and reduces any implication of punishment. Keep in mind, however, that your teen may not turn over everything willingly and may even openly resist your attempts to gather the items. Remember that this is not about defiance, but about fear of losing something that has become a comfort to them. If your child is unwilling to cooperate, let them know that you will need to search through their belongings in order to find the dangerous items. Apologize for the invasion of privacy, acknowledge their feelings of frustration, and proceed with collecting the items. Importantly, try to minimize the invasion and do not mess with their space unnecessarily as this will create resentment when our goal is collaboration.
Once you have removed the means of unhealthy coping, be sure to offer them options for positive coping. A large part of this will mean arranging for your child to attend therapy and work through their thoughts and feelings. But there are also tools you can offer at home.
There are two categories of coping strategies that can be used simultaneously, in whichever combination your child indicates is most helpful.
Healthy Coping Strategies
There are tons of options out there for healthy coping, many of which, in this case, are targeted towards distracting your child from their pain and the urge to self-harm. Giving them somewhere to redirect their focus and perform a tangible action will provide a substitute for self-injurious behaviors.
Deep breathing. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4… hold, 2, 3, 4… out, 2, 3, 4.
Drawing, painting, or some other visual art project.
Listening to or playing music.
Taking on some kind of project, like rearranging and redecorating their room.
Exercising—even if that means going on a 10-minute walk!
Calling or spending time with a friend.
Journaling what they are feeling (side note: this journal should not be read by anyone else unless your child gives explicit permission. If your child feels that their privacy will not be respected, they will not write honestly, and this defeats the purpose of journaling).
Grounding exercises that appeal to the five senses--sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. For example: watching the sunset (sight), listening to calming music or a guided meditation (sound), using essential oils (smell), sucking on a peppermint (taste), laying on a really soft blanket (touch). The idea is to find ways to get your teenager out of their head and more in tune with what's going on in the moment.
Harm Reduction Coping
It may be, especially at first, that your child will have a hard time giving up the relief they feel from self-harm. So, while we’re building up their tool box of healthy coping mechanisms, we can also offer them safer alternatives that remind them of the relief they feel when they self-harm. Propose to your child that, rather than cutting or burning or hitting themselves, they try one or more of the following:
Snapping a rubber band on their wrist. This does hurt, but it doesn’t cause actual damage.
Drawing red lines on their skin with washable red marker. This provides a similar visual cue to seeing cuts on their skin, but no actual injury takes place, and the ink washes off.
Running an ice cube down the area where they usually self-harm. This provides some discomfort/an intense sensation, but no damage.