Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tips for Parents of Teens who Self-Injure

I commonly see teens and adults who engage in self-injurious behavior, including cutting, burning, and a range of other behaviors. Parents of teens who engage in these behaviors understandably have a number of strong feelings, including shock, anxiety, frustration, sadness, and guilt. Most want to know what they can do to help. Here are a few dos and don'ts:

  1. Don't assume the problem will simply go away, even if your teen assures you s/he won't engage in the behavior anymore. Your teen needs professional help.
  2. Don't try to control their behavior. Keeping an eye on them constantly, taking away self-injury instruments, and harsh consequences are unlikely to reduce the behavior and could instead trigger a stress reaction that makes the behavior more likely.
  3. Don't communicate to your teen that s/he is "crazy" for engaging in the behavior. It may be difficult for you to understand, but people engage in this behavior for a reason.
  4. Don't accuse your teen of trying to make you feel guilty. You may feel guilty, but it is unlikely that you teen started engaged in self-injurious behavior for that purpose.
  1. Do get professional help. Depending on the severity of the problem, your teen could benefit from some combination of outpatient therapy, medication, and an inpatient or outpatient hospitalization program.
  2. Do try to stay as calm as possible when talking to your teen.
  3. Do ask helpful questions such as: "How does self-injury help you feel better?" and "Is there anything stressing you out right now that I can help you with?"
  4. Do communicate that you are there if and when your teen wants to talk. If they are not ready to talk when you initiate the conversation, let them know you will check in again later.
For more information about self-injury and how you can help, the Cornell University Family Life Center has created an excellent website.