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Finding out your child/teen is engaging in self-harming behaviors can throw any parent into a whirlwind of emotions- fear, anger, sadness, and confusion (just to name a few).  Understanding why your child would harm their body can be very difficult.  

I intend to shed a little light on the why here, but I, primarily, would like to give some feedback on how you, as the parent of someone who is self-harming, can respond if you do learn your child is engaging in self-harming behavior(s).

Most often, self-harming behaviors are not occurring as a means to attract attention.  (A good check point here is the following: Are these behaviors happening in secret and with attempts to be hidden, or are they happening in public with attempts to be displayed?  If the former, they are not attention seeking behaviors.)  

Although attention seeking self-harm does happen, more often self-harm (deliberate, purposeful injury to one’s own body) occurs as a way to regulate or cope with one’s own unpleasant emotional state.  This can seem confusing (Why would someone hurt themselves as a way to cope with pain?), there are many maladaptive ways folks choose to cope with pain in our society (drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships, overspending, etc.)  

A coping mechanism is maladaptive in that the coping mechanism itself causes additional problems.  

However, in the immediate, the person finds relief.  Although I would love to go into many reasons why/how self-harm provides relief for an individual, this blog is focusing on how a parent, or trusted helper, can respond, productively, if they find out a loved one is self-harming.

Although initial reactions from parents often include anger, punishment, lecturing, and shame, these reactions are generally not helpful in dealing with the self-harm, and they definitely do not address the underlying reasons for the self-harm. (Remember, self-harming behaviors are, most likely, a coping mechanism for something else that is painful for the individual.)  

Additionally, these types ofinitial reactions can have the added negative effect of driving the behavior further underground where we find self-harm happening more and more secretly, which removes the concerned adults ability to help.  

If the self-harm does stop due to fear of punishment, we still have not dealt with why the person is self-harming.

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Instead, I encourage parents and other concerned parties to consider responding with the following:

Empathy– Attempting to take a posture of understanding with someone who is self-harming begins to open doors to discuss his/her pain and what may be underlying this unhealthy coping mechanism.  

(Note: Attempting to understand is not the same as agreement.  We can attempt to understand a behavior without having to agree with the behavior.)  

While anger and shame have a tendency to turn another person inward and/or away, empathy is more likely to act as a gateway for connection.

Nurturing- Although a child who is self-harming may try to push you away or be closed off, attempting to take a nurturing posture, regardless of whether or not it is requested, can create an environment of safety for the self-harming individual.  (Again, note that caring about another’s wellbeing is not the same as agreeing with the behavior.)

Optimism– Learning of self-harm can throw us into our own turmoil.  However, the ability to respond to the self-harming person’s pain with hope about his/her future and his/her ability to overcome feelings that are currently resulting in self-harm are important for both the self-harming individual and for the parent(s).  

Bree Emery specializes in working with individuals who self-harm and helping these individuals move past these harmful behaviors toward healthy coping mechanisms and healthy lifestyles.