Seema, mother of 15-year-old, Priya was horrified to discover bruises and cuts on her daughter’s arms and thighs one morning when she went into her room to wake her up for school. She was filled with shock, disbelief and anger. “What is wrong with you, Priya?”, was her first reaction. Confused and guilty, she yelled at her daughter and tried to do a body check to see if she had hurt herself elsewhere. Priya refused to tell her anything, and left for school in a huff. During the day, Seema turned Priya’s room upside down trying to search for things like sleeping pills, poison, or other dangerous objects that she could have used to harm herself, but found nothing but regular stationery materials like blades, pins etc. When Seema spoke to Priya later in the day, and asked her if she was suicidal, Priya vehemently denied this, saying that she would never do something like that. However, the reasons for her cutting and scratching remained unknown to Seema, despite her best attempts to cajole Priya to tell her more.
A situation like this is the last thing a parent is prepared for, and it may especially be confusing when one finds that one’s child is harming themselves, but at the same time says that he/she has no thoughts of ending their lives.
What is Self-Harm?
Self- harm is an act of physically hurting oneself without the intention to die. It is a cry for attention. It is not trivial in nature such as nail biting or picking on a wound, but it is done with the expectation that it will lead to moderate to severe self-injury. Different forms of physical self- injury are scratching the skin, biting, cutting, pulling hair, cutting, poisoning and more. While initially self-harm was considered to be a symptom of other psychological disorders, including depression, and was also seen as a predictive factor for future suicide attempts, a growing body of research literature has shown that many teens and young adults engage in deliberate self-harm, without ever attempting or even thinking about suicide. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which defines the diagnostic criteria for all kinds of mental illnesses now considers Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSA) as a disorder in itself.
Signs to watch out for
- Negative thoughts and feelings
- A period of preoccupation of thinking through indulging in the act of self-inflicted injury
- A purpose to inflict pain to self, to get relief from a negative mind, to feel positive from the pain that occurs as a result of the injury.
Why it’s hard to talk to children about self-harm?
On a number of occasions, self-harm behavior is left unaddressed or is spoken about with a lot of anger and vehement opinions. There are a number of reasons why parents may not discuss self-harm behaviour with their children -
- Not discussing it at all, with the thought that talking of it may give more ideas to the person
- Feeling awkward about discussing sensitive matters such as these because we may feel awkward at or at a loss for words.
- Being in denial that their children are indulging in these acts and thinking that this a one-off incident/phase which will pass.
What do if you suspect your child is self-harming?
- Anticipate and acknowledge discomfort: Recognize that your discussion with your child about behaviour so private to them is invasive and frightening. Start by telling them about what you have observed and help them to also acknowledge that there is a problem.
- For example, “You seem to feel low… what is happening?” “How have you been feeling?”
- Explore feelings and thoughts: This is a very private aspect of your child’s life. Ask your child about what it is like for them to talk to you about hurting themselves.
- You could say, “I am concerned about you; how do you feel about talking to me about hurting yourself?”/“What about hurting yourself makes you feel better?”Ask them if there are any stressors that they are going through at the moment that you can help them with.
- Explore what you can do differently: You could also ask them about what changes they would like to see in their relationship with you which would then make a difference to them.
- For example, “Is there something that I can do to improve the way you feel about discussing your difficulties with me?”, “What changes should we make in order to help you feel more comfortable in talking to me?”
- Give it time: Lastly, give them time and space to open up with you by asking them if they want to talk to you at that time or when they are ready to talk – about how often you can check in on them about this or would they like to go and talk to you about it.
- For example, “Do you wish to talk about this later?”, “I want you to know that I care for you and you can talk to me about anything that’s there on your mind.”
Having the right support is the important at this stage for both your child and for you. Once you have been able to speak with your child, ask them if they are okay with you speaking with someone safe about helping them with coping effectively with the concerns. This is also because getting to know of self-injurious behavior and talking about it would be emotionally overwhelming for both your child and you.
- Sweet, M., & whitlock, J. (n.d.). Cornell Research Program on Self-injury and Recovery . Retrieved from http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/parenting-2.pdf
- Alderman, T. (2010, February 10 ). Non-Suicidal Self-Injury: A New Diagnosis? Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scarred-soul/201002/non- suicidal-self-injury-new-diagnosis
- Cannon, E., & Ackerman, J. (2017, February 10). Kids and Self-Injury: What Parents Need to Know. Retrieved from 700 childrens: http://700childrens.nationwidechildrens.org/kids-self-injury-parents-need-to-know/
- Greydanus, D. (2011, April 28). Treating Self-Harm in Children and Adolescents. Retrieved from Psychiatrictimes : http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/child-adolescent-psychiatry/treating- self-harm-children-and-adolescents
- Self-Harm; NPSCC . (n.d.). Retrieved from NPSCC : https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing- abuse/keeping-children-safe/self-harm/
- Tartakovsky, M. (2013, October 16 ). News&Experts; PsychCentral. Retrieved from PsychCentral: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/10/16/helping-your-child-reduce-self- harming-behavior/