March is Self-Harm Awareness Month. Self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is the act of intentionally harming oneself without the intent to die. While NSSI places one at greater risk for suicide, it should be noted that it is distinct from a suicide attempt. NSSI is often a maladaptive coping skill used to manage distressing feelings. For parents and caregivers, it can be particularly concerning to learn of your child’s NSSI behavior. Self-harming behavior is a risk factor when assessing for suicide risk and while it does not necessarily indicate an imminent safety concern, it should be taken seriously. Here are some things to consider if you learn that your child is engaging in self-harm.
- Understand that it is a failed attempt at coping. When we understand that self-harm is often an ineffective way to manage negative feelings, we can help the kids we love to identify and engage in more effective coping skills. The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery has an exceptional list of alternative coping strategies. These strategies range from squeezing ice to placing stickers on the area your child wishes to harm.
- Connect with a therapist. While it may seem that self-harm is the actual problem, in most cases, it is a symptom of the problem. Is your child feeling stressed? Overwhelmed? Angry? Isolated? Connecting with a therapist can help your child to identify the specific stressor that is leading them to cope in an ineffective way. While we want to stop the self-harming behavior, failing to address the triggers and identify safe and effective coping skills places the child at risk to continue to self-harm.
- Suggest alternative coping strategies. When the brain engages in fight, flight, or freeze, its ability to reasonably sort through alternative coping strategies is impaired. As a caregiver, you can help redirect your child. When your child is not actively in a crisis, sit down together and list alternative coping strategies. Does your child enjoy walking? Do they enjoy dancing to a favorite song? Do they feel most supported by a listening ear? When a stressor arises and your child is tempted to self-harm, refer to the list you made together and help redirect them to a different coping skill.
- Sharp objects, supervision and support. While your child begins to connect with a therapist, removing sharp objects will be crucial in keeping your child safe from self-harm. Know what your child typically self-harms with and remove those items from your home. Think creatively and consider other obscure objects, as well. Remember that supervision is key in helping your child to remain safe. Lastly, reach out for support. Watching your child struggle with self-harm is difficult as a caregiver. Utilize your local and national resources to obtain needed support.