For most parents, self-harm is an alien and confusing concept. It’s normal to experience a number of incredibly distressing emotions and feelings of helplessness upon learning your child is hurting themselves. In order to dispel such anxiety-provoking myths, let’s look at the facts and provide you with some tools to your child.
Self-injury, also known as self-harm or self-mutilation, is known by society in its most common form – cutting. However, other behaviours include burning, scratching, mild poisoning and picking. Generally, self-harm is not an attempt to complete suicide but rather an increasingly common, yet addictive, maladaptive coping strategy used predominately by youth.
One Study of Canadian youth found that almost 2 out of every 10 youth aged 14-21 had hurt themselves on purpose at one time or another ~ CHEO
As contradictory as it may sound, many youth find that the pain of inflicting harm on themselves successfully increases their sense of control by interrupting feelings of anxiety, emotional pain and numbness, and thoughts of self-loathing.
Unfortunately, youth who self-harm may be generally unaware of healthier ways of coping with negative feelings and this can make harming themselves feel less like a choice and more of a necessity. Unlike with healthier ways of coping, the relief that comes with self-harm is fleeting and it can become an addictive as it takes more incidents and increased severity to achieve the same feelings of calm. As a parent, it is normal to want to insist your child to just stop harming themselves and it’s tempting to threaten them with consequences and ultimatums if they do not; however, this can be counterproductive and increase stress.
Thankfully, there are many ways parents can help their child to adopt healthier coping strategies.
Harm-reduction strategies are only to be used if all of the healthy coping techniques have been unsuccessful and your child is afraid they are going to follow through with thoughts of self-harm. Some suggestions are snapping an elastic band on their wrist, eating a hot pepper or a chili flake or holding an ice cube. Please consult a counsellor before suggesting or coming up with your own harm-reduction techniques.
If you are interested in learning more, contact your Employee and Family Assistance Program and speak to a counsellor. Call 1 866 833-7690 or visit workhealthlife.com
Cornell Research program on Self-injurious behaviour in Adolescents and Young Adults. www.crpsib.com
What you need to know about… Helping Children and Youth with Self-Harm behaviours. Information for Parents and Caregivers. www.cheo.on.ca
Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. www.helpguide.org
When Your Child is Cutting: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Overcome Self-Injury. Authors: Sony Khemlani-Patel, Merry McVey-Noble, Fugen Neziroglu