Q: We have just found out that our daughter is cutting herself.
As you can imagine, we are very upset about this. Neither of us understands it. We thought that only kids who were abused cut themselves.
We have quite a nice life and there aren’t any big issues that would drive her to cut herself. We really want to help her but we are arguing about why she’s doing it and what we should do about it.
It doesn’t help that our feelings about this change every five minutes. We have so many questions and absolutely no answers.
I hope you can answer some of these questions for us. Why is she doing this? Have we caused this? Is she asking for attention? Does this mean she’s suicidal? Do we punish her for cutting? Should we supervise her 24/7? Does she need therapy? How can we help her?
A: You are not alone. Sadly, many teens engage in self-harming behaviours such as cutting, bruising, and burning. Like you, many parents struggle with understanding why their kids are hurting themselves and how to help. You have asked some good questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.
Teens hurt themselves for a number of reasons. The most common reason why teens hurt themselves physically is to deal with emotional pain.
When emotions are so big that they overwhelm a teen’s ability to cope with them, they may resort to causing physical pain as a way of releasing the emotional pain. Usually the intention of self-harm is not to die, but to ease emotional pain or turmoil.
Regardless of the reasons that your daughter is cutting, the way to help her will include talking to her. Some of the questions you have asked would be good questions to ask her.
For her to feel safe enough to talk to you and to explore her feelings, you need to create a calm, non-judgmental, and understanding environment.
If you are too distressed to do this, find someone who she can talk to about her feelings; perhaps another relative, the school counsellor, a therapist, pastor, or doctor.
I also recommend you talk to someone about your feelings. It is common for parents to feel confused, worried, scared, embarrassed, angry, and guilty.
Teens (and many adults) don’t always have great ways of dealing with emotions.
“Dealing with emotions” means identifying what we are feeling, validating our experience, tending to the associated physical symptoms, expressing, and finally transforming or releasing the feeling.
Ignoring or suppressing strong emotions is almost never a good idea because left unattended, feelings have a tendency to become amplified and threaten emotional regulation and control.
You can help your daughter to learn some healthy ways cope by: letting her know that feelings are normal and important (even the hard ones); that you will support her through the hard feelings; helping her connect with her strengths; assisting her in practical ways to find solutions to any contributing problems; helping her discover healthier ways to channel and release her feelings such as writing, drawing, talking, exercising, listening to or making music.
Parents often want to supervise 24/7 and to remove all sharp instruments from the home. Preventing the self-harm is not about removing opportunities and implements for self-harm, but rather about addressing the feelings.
Certainly, if your daughter wants you to remove items from her room or even from the house, do it!
Treating self-harm as misbehaviour and applying punishment is not a good idea because it doesn’t change the behaviour, may magnify hard feelings, and may push your daughter away at a time when she needs to feel close to you.
If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at email@example.com. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.