Your child self-harms — now what?

Your child self-harms — now what?


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SALT LAKE CITY — It is the worst nightmare for parents to look down and see injuries that their child has inflicted on himself or herself. Your initial reaction might be to panic or get angry.

Here are the best practices to handle this frightening situation.

1. Stay calm

Staying calm may be the furthest thing from your mind, but you need to regulate your emotions. If you react negatively, your child may clam up and you will not be able to help him or her through this distressing time.

2. Figure out your child's motive

There is a big difference between self-harm and a suicide attempt. However, they may look very similar. Asking your child what his or her original objective was is very important and will determine your next action. The best way to ask this is to be straightforward with little to no emotion. This will facilitate keeping the child's answer as close to the truth as possible. If he or she was trying to commit suicide, then you need to take the child to a hospital for evaluation. An ambulance needs to be called if the injury appears life-threatening.

3. Have your child talk about his/her feelings

Let your child know that he or she can talk to you. The best way to show this is by staying calm and being nonjudgmental. It can be normal for them to feel numb or emotionless. Just have them notice this and express any body sensations that come up. This will help reduce numbness and increase awareness of his or her body again.

4. Investigate how your child is cutting

Your child may resist when you ask about how he or she is cutting. The reason you are asking this tough question is that you are going to take away the objects they are using to self-harm, along with anything that may be used in the future. You may have to use some detective skills when eliminating these objects from your home. Items can include loose screws, pens, staples or small sharp pieces of plastic.

The use of self-harm will be replaced, under professional support, with other coping skills like rubberband flicking around the wrist, cold showers, holding ice, music and various other techniques.

5. Tell your child your feelings

You need to keep your calm demeanor while discussing your feelings. It is important that you are honest with your child. Common emotions for parents are being scared, overwhelmed and sad. This situation can give you mixed emotions: You love your child and don't want him or her to hurt themselves, but you feel guilty and want to shut down. Accept your emotions without judgment. Stay honest with your child, and he or she is more likely to be honest with you.

6. Seek professional help

Finding a good therapist who has worked with people who self-harm is very important. Self-harm is a complicated issue and needs a calm outside person to help walk you through a safety plan and relapse prevention plan.

Having a therapist is also a great support for the family system and can be a great comfort as situations become emotionally charged. Self-harm is just as complicated as substance abuse issues or mental-health disorders. Know that this is not a simple coping mechanism to eliminate, and it will take time. It is best to get the family involved to support one another in this difficult but rewarding journey.

7. You are not alone

Understand that although this is a scary situation, you do not have to figure all of this out on your own. Always keep helpline information on hand and educate yourself. 1-800-DONT-CUT, 1-800-334-HELP, and are great resources for crisis situations.

This being said, when in doubt call emergency services.

Warning signs that a family member or friend is cutting or self-injuring:
  • Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
  • Blood stains on clothing, towels or bedding; blood-soaked tissues.
  • Sharp objects or cutting instruments, such as razors, knives, needles, glass shards or bottle caps, in the person's belongings.
  • Frequent "accidents." Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps in order to explain away injuries.
  • Covering up. A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
  • Needing to be alone for long periods of time, especially in the bedroom or bathroom.
  • Isolation and irritability.

Jessie Shepherd, MA, ACMHC, specializes in assisting children, adolescents and parents to overcome life's challenges. She is the director of youth services at Life Stone Counseling Center. Learn more at

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