When family members find out about a loved one who self injures, most feel at a loss. They might begin to question their past behavior toward their child/relative and worry that, from now on, every word or action will prompt an incident of self-injury. Family members usually describe initial feelings of shock, fear, confusion, and frustration. Many fear that their child/relative will commit suicide.
Family members of self injurers often agonize about how to approach the topic. Some relatives want to deny the problem, or think the behavior is too crazy to accept or understand. Others are worried about how this behavior will reflect on them.
The first thing to do when you suspect, or find out, that your loved one is self injuring is to think through how you are going to respond.
If you are only suspicious, then ask your child/relative if they are physically harming themselves. If you know they are, tell them that you are there to help. Share your concerns in a nonjudgmental manner. Tell them that you know they must be in a lot of emotional pain, and you are sorry that they are ‘needing’ to do this in order to feel better.
If they say, “it’s no big deal”, ask them if the reason they are saying that, is because they fear you’ll get mad. If they answer no and continue to minimize the behavior, then tell them that you would like to get a professional evaluation. Ask them if they have had thoughts of suicide. If they say yes, then ask if they have a plan. If they do, then get immediate professional help by taking them to an emergency room or psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.
If they say no, then ask them if they know why they self-injure and whether or not they are scared. Tell them you’ll be there to listen to whatever they have to say. Be prepared to hear things that may be difficult for you to accept. If you know that you have not always been there for them, consider telling them that you will be there for them now. If you are sorry, tell them so, even if it wasn’t under your control (e.g., illness, divorce, job demands etc.). Tell them that self-injury is not something they have to, or should, deal with by themselves. Things not to do or say:
- Display anger
- Tell them to just stop it
- Injure yourself – to show them how it makes you feel when they self-injure
- Think of it as ‘just a phase’, or ‘just for attention’
- Punish or ground them
In our book Bodily Harm: the Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers we answer such questions as:
- What are the warning signs that someone is doing harm to themselves?
- What should I say or do— avoid saying or doing— in such a circumstance? Should I confront them? How?
- They won’t open up about the problem. How can I get them to talk to me?
- When they finally did talk to me, I didn’t know what to say to them. Help!
- Should I try to get my loved to stop the behavior? Are there any strategies that work?
- What do I do if they refuse to acknowledge a problem or to get help for it?
- Who should I tell—or not tell— about the problem? Does the school or place of employment need to know?
- The rest of the family is beginning to suspect something is wrong. What should I tell them?
- What should a parent who self injures tell young children about the problem?
- My sister doesn’t want her children to be around my daughter who has been self injuring. What should I do about this?
- How do I support the healing process of someone who injures, without falling into the ‘rescue’ trap—or inadvertently prolonging the behavior? How do I stay healthy while supporting them at the same time?
- As a parent of a self injurer, should I blame myself? How should I deal with my child’s anger and disappointment?
- How do I cope with the frustrations, fear, and anger I feel about the injurer’s behavior?
- My loved one is in the process of healing and has just gotten home from the hospital. What can I expect from them? When are they cured? Do I have to watch what I say or do?