Finding out your child is self-harming can be terrifying, especially if you have no experience with the issue. The unfortunate truth is that this behavior is fairly common. About 15% of adolescents have engaged in what is called Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI) at least once. NSSI is self-injury that is not a suicide attempt, but it is a strong predictor of future suicidal behavior.
While a common image of the self-harmer is a young white girl, NSSI also occurs in boys and does not discriminate across racial identities. LGBTQIA+ youth may have a higher risk of engaging in NSSI. The most frequently seen type of NSSI is skin cutting, but head banging, hitting, and burning are also seen regularly.
What to Do
When you discover your child is self-harming, the first thing to do is treat their wounds. Clean, disinfect, and bandage the afflicted area to prevent infection. Seek additional medical care if needed. Then remove the items your child used to hurt themself and any items that could be used in the future. This may cause some inconvenience to you, as knives, scissors, and razor blades fall into this category and must be locked up.
As soon as possible after finding out about your child’s behavior, set up professional treatment for them. Contact your primary care physician to be referred to a therapist and possibly a psychiatrist if your child does not have them already. If they do, let them know about the self-harm.
In particular, look into Dialectical Behavior Therapy for your child as it is proven successful at reducing self-harm behaviors in youth. DBT teaches coping skills to use instead of self-harm as well as focusing on emotion regulation. DBT programs often have long waitlists but you can start learning skills on your own in advance by purchasing various DBT books. Good skills to start with include TIPP, Alternate Rebellion, and Wise Mind ACCEPTS.
Avoid creating shame around the behavior for your child. Stay calm, avoid letting your fear turn into anger, and offer emotional support to your child. Your child is suffering; only your love and warmth can help right now. NSSI is most often a way to seek relief from overwhelming emotions in an effort to self-regulate. This means your child is coping the only way they know how. Try not to judge them for doing something they’re not “supposed” to do. Try to create a safe environment so they can come to you before they self-harm next time.
Ask your child if they are thinking about suicide, no matter their age. While a professional will do a full suicide assessment, it’s important to intervene as early as possible if it’s something they are thinking about. Asking about suicide does not put the idea in their head. It is absolutely necessary to ask the question directly to get the most truthful answer.
Try to prevent the NSSI from happening again without sacrificing the trusting relationship you have with your child. It’s natural to want to keep your eye on your child 24/7 after finding out they’re self-harming. However, you need to balance that urge with the mutual trust you and your child have. It can damage the relationship to remove too many freedoms too quickly, or at all.