How to Support Your Child who Self-Harms

May 25, 2022

By Grace Lozano, Resident in Counseling

No parent can ever fully prepare themselves for the moment when they realize their child may be self-harming. It’s one of those moments in life where time stops, and it can be hard to re-group and figure out what exactly to do next. As with all parenting, there is no “one size fits all” approach, but here are a few guidelines for when you just don’t know what to do next:

Eight Ways to Process Your Child’s Self-Harming Behavior

  1. Take a deep breath.
    • Your child engaging in self-harm does not mean that you are doing anything wrong and does not mean that you need to charge full-speed ahead into problem-solving mode. In fact, you will be able to support your child better if you give yourself the time and space to let intense or reactive emotions move through your body before figuring out your next steps. Take care of yourself throughout this whole process.
  2. Address immediate safety concerns.
    • Ensure that open wounds are properly disinfected and bandaged. Ask your child if they are feeling safe. It can be useful to ask them to rate their safety on a scale from 1-10, as it may be hard for your child to communicate with many words at this moment. If you or your child has any doubt regarding their safety in the moment, or in the immediate future, call 911 or bring your child to the nearest emergency room to be evaluated by a professional team.
  3. Provide space for your child.
    • I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a child or teen tell their parents: “I wish you would just sit with me or listen to me instead of asking me questions or trying to find answers.” Ask your child what they need in that moment and provide just that, within reason. Your goal in this is to make communication as positive of an experience for them as possible. This will increase the likelihood that they will come to you in the future if they self-harm or have self-harm urges.
  4. Come up with a communication plan with your child.
    • Ask your child what would help them come to you in the future if they think they might self-harm again. As mentioned above, when it comes to safety, children and teens often find it helpful to have some sort of established communication system. One where they don’t have to say much out loud in order to get the support they need. This can look like having a code word, a safety rating scale, a color system, a sign they can hang on their door, a letter-writing system. Get creative with what works for your child and your family!
  5. Check your house for safety.
    • Ask your child if they will walk with you through the house to find objects that would be helpful to be hidden from them while they are navigating self-harm urges. Common objects include razors, knives, lighters, and ligatures.
  6. Seek professional help.
    • Self-harm is often a sign that your child is experiencing emotional distress. You don’t have to figure it out all on your own. Find a mental health professional who is well-versed in self-harm and collaborate with them.
  7. Understand that there will be ups and downs on your child’s journey toward becoming self-harm free.
    • Recovery does not happen overnight. It is a normal part of the process for your child to “slip up” as they work toward learning better coping skills. Provide support for them in these difficult moments using the same steps listed above. Be mindful that your child may be feeling a lot of guilt and shame for making a mistake by engaging in an old habit.
  8. Celebrate the wins.
    • Make sure that you are noticing and validating your child’s efforts! Have a random dance party. Write them a sweet card. Or tell them about all of the hard things you see them doing. Your child’s worth doesn’t rely on becoming self-harm free. But, being celebrated for little and big wins along the way can feel really, really good.

Until next time, Be Wise!