Seeing evidence of your child self-harming, or hurting themselves with intention, can be a terrifying experience for a parent. In addition to the fear, you may be unsure of what to do or say, and want desperately to stop the behaviour. This is a common experience for many parents, as the instances of self-harm is the highest during the teen and early adult years. The Ottawa Citizen wrote an article about teens self-harming, and sadly there are more instances each year. This is a growing issue in Canada, and it needs to be addressed and better understood.
The first thing that is helpful to know is that self-harm is not usually a sign of a desire to commit suicide. Unless there are explicit statements about wanting to commit suicide accompanying the self-harm, its purpose has more to do with coping with negative experiences, using physical pain to break a sense of numbness, or as a way to show others that they are hurting. Once you can see self-harm as a way of coping and communication as opposed to a sign of suicide, it can ease both the sense of fear and helplessness.
The good news is that there are many things that you can do as a parent to help your teen develop more positive coping styles. The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s fact sheet on self-harm highlights both long-term and short-term items that may be helpful for your teen.
Re-assure your child that you are there for them, and that you love them, no matter what. Even though they may not show it, they will appreciate having your unconditional support.
Instead of dismissing or minimizing their feelings, validate that they are feeling the way they are, even though it may be difficult to see their point of view. As parents it can seem counter-intuitive and scary to accept the negative feelings your teen may be expressing, however, it can often be the most effective way to help them cope and move past them.
Help your teen brainstorm less harmful methods to distract themselves from their negative feelings and thoughts, like listening to music, journalling, sports, or another activity that they enjoy.
Help your teen identify the triggers of their self-harm, and discovering what they might need in order to relieve some of their stressors.
Often patterns can be difficult to change or the above conversations break down without a third party, such as a professional psychotherapist or psychologist. Reaching out for additional support can be helpful as well if there are concerns about suicidal thoughts. A professional can help your teen to open up and communicate their concerns, as well as provide support for you as a parent.
To learn more about Capital Choice Counselling Group’s counsellors who specialize in self-harm, please call 613-425-4257. To learn more about the services we provide for teenagers, click here.