Your first clue may be as obvious as the unexplained cuts and bruises on your daughter’s body or as subtle as her odd preference for long sleeves on hot days.
It always pains us to see our children hurt, but it’s doubly disturbing to find out that those cuts, bruises and burns were no accident. So called “self injury” or “self abuse” can be hard to fathom for parents confronted with this scary behavior in their children, but they’d do well to keep their shock in check.
Sounding the alarm will do your daughter more harm than good. It’s okay to express concern, but try to be calm and non-judgmental about it, giving her your unconditional love and support.
Also know that this problem is more common than you think, and help is out there.
Young people who purposely injure themselves usually are trying to cope, not kill themselves. Still, it isn’t a problem to be ignored or taken lightly. The behavior can be an attempt to escape painful emotions or numbness, relieve stress and depression, or express shame and self-hatred.
We have a team of counselors at Youth Eastside Services (YES) who are experienced in working with this issue, which thankfully has come out of the shadows over the last 20 years. Much more is known now about why young people self injure and what can be done about it.
Once thought to be a problem primarily among girls during adolescence, current research shows that younger children and boys can do it too. According to some estimates, as many as one in five college students has a history of non-suicidal self-injury, which can include cutting, picking scabs or interfering with wound healing, burning, punching things and hair pulling.
Kids will usually do their best to hide it, but signs of possible self-injury include:
Unexplained cuts, bruises and wounds in places that are usually covered by clothing, including the stomach, upper arms and thighs;
Trouble coping with strong emotions, especially sadness, fear and anger;
Wearing long sleeves and pants in hot weather;
If you find out your child is engaging in self injury, don’t react with fear or anger or respond with punishments such as grounding or taking away privileges. It also won’t work to try to analyze or fix the problem. Your role is to listen, offer support and get your child professional help if needed.
A counselor trained in self injury can assess what’s behind your child’s actions and help him or her find healthier ways to cope.
One of the best things parents can do is keep the lines of communication open and give their children opportunities to talk about their feelings, she says. “With self injury, it’s the emotional experiences behind the behavior that are the most significant, not the behavior itself.”
Patti Skelton-McGougan is the executive director of Youth Eastside Services. For more information, call 425-747-4937 or go to www.youtheastsideservices.org.