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Help your teenager prevent self-injury.

Self-harm is common among teenagers—advice on how to talk to your child.

Around 18% of teenagers have self-injured in a non-suicidal manner at some stage in their life. Nearly one-fifth of teenagers intentionally hurt themselves without intending to commit suicide. This includes cutting, burning, biting, or hitting themselves and severely scratching them.

“Few Parents feel prepared on how to respond if their child intentionally harms themselves,” says Nicholas J. Westers,  Psy.D. ABPP, Clinical psychologist at Children’s Health at UT Southwestern and Associate Professor. It cannot be very comforting to learn that your child has self-injured. However, you can do something about it. When talking to your child about self-injury, keep these tips in mind:

1. Self-awareness is better than being too confident

When you hear “self-injury” or “cutting,” be aware of your feelings and reactions. It may come across as judgmental and non-empathetic if you react negatively. Inadvertently, it may send the message to your child that they cannot talk openly to you about their struggle with self-injury.

Dr. Westers urges you to learn as much as possible about the behavior. The more you know – and remember that even adults have done things we now realize were not in our best interests – the better equipped you will be to empathize and help others.

2. Listen well (rather than solving problems)

It cannot be easy to see your child suffer, whether it is physically or emotionally. Dr. Westers says it is understandable for parents to want to fix their child’s problem and remove the pain. Ironically, healing can happen when parents listen to their teens rather than fix whatever is wrong.

Listening to your child without offering unsolicited advice will help them deal with their emotions. Asking good questions is part of being a good ear, so you can respectfully inquire about self-injury. What can I do to prevent self-injury? “).

3. You can be your child’s emotional container (rather than an emotional responder).

When overwhelmed, children often turn to their parents for emotional support and a sense that everything is okay. You can teach them to be calm and peaceful by responding calmly. It can be the same for teens. Dr. Westers explains that many youths self-injure to control their emotions when overwhelmed. Encourage your teen to speak to you instead of self-injuring when feeling this way.

Prepare to respond calmly and help them regulate their emotions. You may cause your child’s “emotional vessel” to become contaminated or overflow. This will make it harder for them to regulate their emotions or learn to self-soothe.

4. Use a healthy coping technique (rather than a punishment)

Your teen probably already knows that you don’t approve of self-injury. Many young people self-injure to punish themselves. Some parents believe that removing their cell phones or other privileges can help them stop.

Dr. Westers says, “Don’t punish your child because they punish themselves.” Instead, express your concern over the behavior. Offer to help, talk, and provide emotional assistance when they cannot do so themselves. A supportive response might be: “It is really difficult for me to hear you hurt yourself.” “I don’t like it that you do this, but I am here for you. We’ll work through this together.”

Your child may learn from your lectures and punishments that telling you about self-injury is unsafe. They may continue the behavior but no longer inform you. Good communication with your parent is the best and most protective way for your child to cope.

Seeking help

Consider contacting a mental healthcare professional if your child is self-injuring. This is especially important if you’re concerned about your teen’s safety. A therapist can help your child develop healthier coping mechanisms. Encourage them to seek extra support by meeting with one.

Dr. Westers concludes by saying, “Be willing to seek your own professional support, as a parent who is emotionally healthy makes a better one.”

Children’s Health provides comprehensive care to adolescents requiring psychiatry or psychological services.

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