It’s a serious subject, and medical professionals want parents to know that it’s not something that only happens to ‘other people,’ and it could happen to you. A child that self-harms is devastating, but the fact of the matter is that your child is probably very adept at hiding this from you. The most common form of self-injury is cutting. You see it in the movies, on television and it’s easy to think that this is the type of thing that happens to other people. This is the type of thing that would never ever affect your child, your family.
Unfortunately, the truth is that doctors and psychiatrists are seeing more and more patients who cut, and many of them are as young as 11 and 12, even though the typical age for this type of self-mutilation to occur is around 14. In short, self-injury, self-harm and self-mutilation are methods that kids use to cope with their unhappiness. And sadly, their unhappiness is not caused by only horrible things that have happened in their lives. Your child doesn’t have to be a child who was abused physically, emotionally or sexually to cut or harm herself in any way. She does not have to be part of the “Goth” movement; she could simply be a girl with an uptight personality – someone who needs control and craves perfection. If she cannot find it, she might turn to self-harm as a way of controlling her emotions.
It’s a very slippery slope for parents. Many ignore the signs and symptoms because they live lives that don’t seem conducive to this type of bodily harm. They live in nice houses, they’re happy families, the kids are good kids involved in sports and making good grades; they have no reason to cut or self-harm. They have no reason to do this to themselves – except that sometimes their reasons make very little sense and their parents ignore all the warning signs.
Before we go on and discuss the warning signs and what you can do, it’s imperative to understand that not all kids that self-harm are looking to end their lives. It is not a suicidal method. It’s all about control; controlling emotions and working through them. If you’re worried your child might be inflicting self-harm – or even if you don’t think your child would ever – know the signs. You never know when they might come in handy.
What does self harm look like?
The truth is that it looks like many things, but we will focus on cutting since it is the most prevalent method of self-harm. It’s easy, it’s not too painful and kids have plenty of opportunity to hide this kind of bodily harm. What you need to know about cutting is that it’s often small, it’s often isolated to the arms and legs and it doesn’t look like your kids are trying to slit their wrists. Instead, it looks like kids got into a fight with the cat. The lines are small, linear and typically appear to look more like scratches than anything else.
Most medical professionals, parents and teachers note that when a child who cuts explains away his or her marks, the typical answer is that the cat did it. And in truth, it does look very much like that cat did it. However, we know that while cats can be mean, they’re not inflicting this much injury onto their family members, only one family member, and all this often. Children that harm themselves in this manner often hide their marks with long sleeves. Often the most telling sign that a child self-harms is long sleeves all the time – especially when the weather is nice.
Where does self harm come from?
It could come from any number of locations. However, it likely stems from a lack of control, and that could be from anywhere. It’s a very common practice in children who were abused in some way; it allows them to channel their pain, control it and make it happen and stop when they want it to so that they can control how they feel since someone else already took that power from them.
However, even kids that aren’t being abused are turning to this type of behavior as a way of managing their pain and their inability to control their lives. The straight A student who is class president, homecoming queen and captain of the cheerleading squad could be the girl cutting herself because she’s so overwhelmed out and of control with all that’s going on in her life. Kids who end a relationship, are hurt by a friend; they’re more likely to cut. And as time goes on, the cutting becomes worse. It’s addictive, like drugs, and it takes more cuts, deeper cuts and more blood for them to feel the same kind of relief that they once felt.
What do parents do with a child that self harms?
This is where it gets a little complicated. Most parents assume their kids are trying to kill themselves, and they are not. Psychiatrists recommend that unless the child is bleeding uncontrollably, a trip to the emergency room is a terrible idea because ER personnel tend to become hostile and angry over self-inflicted wounds. Because they are not used to deal with this kind of behavior on a deeper level, they often mistakenly hold kids and treat them as suicidal when they are, in fact, not.
Doctors recommend psychotherapy, but your child has to be ready for help. The best that you can do is open the lines of communication. Let your kids know you want them to come to you, that you want them to be open with you and that you are here to listen without judgment. Tell them that if they don’t come to you, go to someone. Let them know you are worried and that you will get help for them.
It’s important not to panic – which is far easier said than done. Your child is cutting and you are going to panic. But try not to. Try not to let your child see you panic because you have to have the control in this situation if you want to help your kids. Then, call the doctor. Call a psychiatrist or the pediatrician; call a doctor and get information on where you can go in your area and which programs are available for your child.
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