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What to Say If Your Child is Self-Harming: A Guide to the Initial Discussion

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Self-harm is something that is very difficult for caring adults to comprehend. It is also difficult for young people to explain, which makes initial conversations very hard. That’s why any conversation about self-harm needs to be approached calmly and carefully.

It’s a big (perhaps unrealistic) ask for parents to stay level headed and collected during such a distressing time. I want parents to know that it is totally okay to feel and show emotion. You are not a robot, and the feelings you have communicate your reality concern.

However, the greatest over arching advice I can give you as a parent is to process your emotions away from your child. Talk to a psychologist, counsellor or family friend before you speak to your young person. In my opinion, that is the wisest thing a parent could ever do.

In this blog I’d like to offer a general road map to tackling conversations about self-harm. It will help you design an introduction, a series of questions that guide the middle of the conversation, and then an ending.

Nailing the Introduction

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a parent turn a bad day into a disaster by wading into an intense discussion without preparing their son or daughter well. I suggest you start by giving some warning that the conversation is going to happen. Don’t just spring it on them in the car, or while you are shopping or cooking dinner. I would prefer you say, ‘I need to have an important conversation with you. It is going to take about 45 minutes. Would you like to walk and talk or sit in your bedroom?’

They need to know you will shut up at some point. That is why you need to tell them how long it will take. If it’s open-ended it might feel too overwhelming for them to handle. If the conversation goes longer, great – but at least they don’t feel like you are going to trap them all night!

Don’t let the conversation go longer than you both can emotionally handle. Conversations that last longer than an hour tend to lose their quality. In my opinion, shorter, more focused conversations leave young people coming back for more. I would rather have regular shorter conversations than longer conversations that leave everyone emotionally exhausted.

One of these opening lines may be all it takes to open up communication:

  • I am concerned about you
  • I want you to know that I am here if you want to talk
  • If you want to talk to anyone, even if it’s not me, I will organize that for you
  • How can I best support you right now?

Navigating the Body of the Conversation

This may sound crazy but please think of this as your golden opportunity to build trust and connection with your child. You may never get this opportunity again. In fact, I really hope you don’t get an opportunity exactly like this again! There may never be another time when they are so vulnerable and need you in such a specific way. Handle it with care, realising that each word will make an impact.

Try to create a safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment that reinforces what is healthy and true, while leaving room to understand a young person’s current state of mind. Never assume what they are thinking. Always ask, even if you think you might not like the answer. You will need your poker face at times. A few awkward pauses are okay. If they don’t want to answer, remember this: be content to not know. It won’t necessarily change the way you parent.

Reassure your child that you don’t think they are a failure because they are having difficulties. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world had moments of significant struggle. This may be the first time in their lives they have felt such deep and overwhelming emotions, and they don’t yet have the maturity to know that people can get through such times.

Here are some thoughts and questions that might help you frame and guide the conversation:

  • My greatest focus and concern is supporting you the best way I can. This conversation is about helping me do that.
  • Is there anything I could do that would make a difference?
  • I need you to help me understand self-harm. How does self-harm make you feel better?
  • What time of day are you struggling the most? What can we do as a family to help you at that time?
  • How well are you sleeping?
  • Would seeing a doctor be something you were open to?
  • What is it like talking to me about self-harm? Who else are you talking to?
  • There are some things that I need to talk to you about for your safety. Would you be happy to talk about some of these practical things with me? I need you to reassure me that you are safe, and we need to keep these lines of communication open.
  • What positives can we add to your life now? Is there anything that you are missing out on that you used to love doing?
  • At your worst points, how bad are your feeling? If you don’t have words to describe it, could you give me a rating out of 10?
  • How are your friendships and relationships going?
  • How are you feeling about your relationships with each of us in the family right now?
  • Is there anything that is really concerning you right now that I can help you with?
  • Is there anything you can’t talk to me about that you might want to talk to someone else about? I can arrange that for you.
  • If you ever want to text me instead of talking to me, you know my number!

Things to Avoid

I also want to quickly share a few things that are likely to railroad the middle of your conversation. Firstly, recognise when you are pushing your teen to communicate outside of their comfort zone. If it isn’t flowing naturally, step back and leave it alone. There are times when you have to be content not to know how they feel until they are ready to talk to you about it. Pushing conversations makes boys feel out of control and uncomfortable. It never brings out the best in them.

Secondly, be aware of your emotional triggers. Judgements, criticisms, overreactions, control, insensitivity and a lack of knowledge amongst other things will impact conversations negatively. Avoid these like the plague, even if you can justify them in your head at the time! None of these are ‘soft and close’.

Specific lines that I recommend parents avoid include:

  • There must be something wrong with you for you to do this
  • I think you are doing this to get attention
  • If you don’t stop I will have to punish you
  • Lots of people go through bad stuff in life and don’t end up cutting
  • You will end up in hospital or worse
  • Tell me where you are hiding your blades now
  • How long has this been going on?
  • I know how you feel
  • I bet your friends are doing it and that’s why you started
  • Why do you want to kill yourself?]

Landing the Conversation

Realise your child may repeat every word you say over and over in their head for days to come. For that reason, please don’t let it be the last time you talk as they will need to clarify things that you have said. My guess is that they will misinterpret some of what you have said if left as a solo conversation. I would suggest that you check in and keep checking in every few days.

You might land your conversation by saying, ‘This is not the last time I want us to talk. How about I check in with you in a few days, or if you want to talk to me earlier I am always here to talk. The most important thing for you to know is that I love you and there is nothing I won’t do for you. There is nothing we can’t get through when we love each other.’

You may have to offer this support over and over, but if you keep offering it, chances are that one day your young person will take you up on it. The alternative of coming in with ‘all guns blazing’ is likely to be counter-productive, and will possibly even backfire.

 Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Keep it honest and real. Keep it ‘soft and close’.

RECOMMENDED READING: For more on this topic, please check out Michelle’s book Self Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help’

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