You look over at your lovely daughter and think to yourself how time flies. Gazing at her with love, you notice red marks and lines on her youthful arms. Immediate panic sets in; you reach over with shock and say, “What is this?!” Your parental urgency sounds like terror, and your daughter pulls away quickly and rebuffs your concern. She retreats to her room, and you are left wondering where you went wrong and concerned that she’s in danger.
As much as it’s an unwanted membership, you’ve just joined with other parents who have children who cut. You may not even know that’s what you’ve exposed, but most likely it is. If your child has been acting more irritable, overwhelmed, and on edge, be aware of the signs of potential self-harm. Generally, the signs distinct to a person who cuts include:
- Wearing long sleeves in warm weather. People who cut themselves usually hide the evidence.
- Wearing a multitude of bracelets to cover their wrists. Again to hide the evidence, not necessarily to be in fashion.
- A teen who explains away marks and cuts in unlikely ways, such as “cat scratches” when you don’t own a cat.
The biggest question becomes, then, what do we do as parents? Here are some suggestions to help you parent through this challenging time:
- Don’t freak out. This is the hardest part for parents, but a necessary one with teens. If you freak out, they freak out. They are just as afraid of their behavior as you are, and if they see you unable to control yourself and handle it, how is there hope for them to cope? Instead, breathe, think it through, and speak calmly.
- Check your anxiety. How do you handle your anxiety? Do they see you cope in healthy ways or do you create maladaptive behaviors as well? Are you stressed all the time, yell at everyone, and otherwise handle life poorly? Remember, they are watching you.
- Ask them if they want to talk about it, and create opportunities for them to talk. Forcing teens to talk is a recipe for disaster. Instead, be available and let them know repeatedly that you are there to listen if they want to talk. They will appreciate that they can choose to talk or not, and that you are accessible. Create time and opportunities to engage with them.
- Don’t embarrass them by telling all your friends. As much as being secretive is damaging, so is telling everyone you know because YOU can’t handle it. This is the time to put your teen’s feelings first and care for them without alerting the media.
- Know your limits. If this is too much to handle, seek help for your teen. Self-harm is relatively newly acknowledged and understood as a coping mechanism. A mental health provider can provide guidance and teach appropriate techniques to help your teen handle life.
- Don’t tell them to stop cutting. Telling your teen to “knock it off” or “don’t do it again” is simply asking for rebellion. Although that’s how we feel and what we want to say, it’s best to understand the behavior fully before seeking demands.
- Create a plan. This is a great time to create a plan for healthy coping mechanisms. Brainstorm with your teen alternative solutions during stressful times. Maybe they can go for a walk, call a friend, bake a cake, draw, listen to music, watch a movie, or journal. This can be a fun activity to do together—use your creativity!
- Spend one-on-one time with your teen. Kids spell love: T-I-M-E. Make time.
Discovering that your teen cuts may lead to panic and unease. How you handle yourself during this scary time can create a path to peace or leave a destructive wake. Checking yourself and your own anxiety can be a powerful tool to teaching your teen how to do it, too.
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