Hidden pain is difficult for anyone to manage without help, especially for those who are young. Nothing in ordinary life naturally prepares us for pain that cannot be expressed. Additionally, the outward world — what your child, teen, or young adult observes — often offers a distortion of what is really going on in the lives of others. Television and movies present unrealistic details, magazines and online media may glamorize extreme ideals and peer behavior, and friendship upheaval exerts tremendous pressure at a time in life when big changes are happening to the body and mind.
You may be the last person to find out your child is struggling. If you have no prior experience with this topic or related mental health training, you may not know how to help.
Self-injury (non-suicidal) may not have one single cause that is easy to understand. Coping skills can help, but the lack of these skills affects behavior and self-confidence adversely. Psychological pain is very different from visible, physical hurt but is just as real. Confusion about mixed emotions and difficulty in understanding how to process them may compound the main issue or issues by causing feelings of loneliness, anger, guilt, self-hatred, or worthlessness.
First, don’t panic. If you remain calm and offer unconditional love and open communication, you set a model for your child or teen to follow. Let him or her know you are there to help with suggestions that really work. Many resources are available to you and to your child, including your family doctor.
Second, encourage appropriate social networking. People who keep feelings inside often think they are the only ones who have to deal with the issues they face, but assuring them they are not alone helps mitigate the helplessness they might feel and avoid shock reactions that can drive them to deeper silence. Young adults value self-sufficiency and may benefit from individual or group counseling but still need understanding from family members.
Third, teach healthy coping skills. These are tools everyone should have and know how to use during times of distress. A simple journal can be helpful to begin.
Ask your child to write down things that bother her and then help her identify options. Sometimes, a schedule that is too busy is too stressful. The journal can help her decide if she can relieve some of that stress by dropping some of her activities.
Let her know she can also use the journal to write down her feelings. Seeing her words in print may help her figure out ways to change how she feels about them. Help her list some alternate activities to do when she feels stressed: exercise, listen to music, read a book, practice breathing exercises and more. Sports and hobbies work well, too.
Fourth, learn together. Warning signs, complications, and ways others have coped are all topics that can be explored together. Discuss what risk factors might be present. According to the Mayo Clinic, mental health and life issues as varied as anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol or drug use, learned behavior from friends who self-injure, sexual abuse, or neglect can contribute as well as experiencing traumatic events or growing up in an unstable home environment. This is just a partial list. The complex picture for one individual may look very different and should be explored with the help of a mental health professional. Though self-injury is not usually a suicide attempt, it can increase the risk of suicide.
Fifth, encourage your child to reach out to friends who might be using self-injury instead of healthy coping skills. He can be a positive influence and loyal friend to others by sharing what he has learned. Though friends will be treated individually — through psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness-based therapy and possibly medications and hospitalizations — their support for each other can be a valuable way to reinforce success.
Take care of yourself and consider seeing a counselor of your own. A minister or school counselor can also assist you and will provide resources and confidentiality. These are difficult, heartbreaking issues facing your family. But ongoing help is available.
Threats and punishments are not usually successful and may drive you and your loved ones apart. Develop your own coping mechanisms to help you work through the emotions you feel. Families can work together to plan relaxed times filled with conversation, artful expression, and fun. Think of what your family enjoys. When these times happen without planning, take time to allow each person to participate. Laughter and just being together can be a great family night around a pizza or two.
Finally, let others in the family know what is going on (as appropriate). Respect your child’s privacy but encourage him or her to gather all the support possible.