Disclaimer: I am not a trained mental health practitioner. This article is based on my research and is my opinion.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, Text HOME to 741-741 or START to 678-678 to connect with a Crisis Counselor.
To many, the idea of causing yourself intentional harm (through cutting, burning, or any other type of self-injury), is repugnant and scary. As a parent, learning that your child is self-harming the flood of negative emotions – fear, shame, worry, anger, guilt, etc. – may drive you to seek something or someone to blame. For parents of LGBTQIA+ kids, there is a tendency to assume a direct connection between their child’s sexual or gender identity and their self-harming behavior.
Too often being queer opens a young person up to discrimination, bullying, harassment, and violence. According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health,
- 75% of LGBTQ youth reported that they had experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their lifetime.
- More than half of LGBTQ youth reported that they had experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year.
Being subjected to consistent negative and potentially dangerous words and actions can absolutely contribute to anxiety and depression which in some cases can lead to self-harming behavior. Let’s explore self-harm a bit.
Why do people self-harm?
Each person has their own story, but the reasons people self-harm may include:
- Redirection – For some, the emotional pain they are experiencing is too difficult to process or verbalize. A physical injury redirects that pain to a physical representation.
- Control – Creating a physical manifestation of their pain allows the person to feel in control of it – they can see the injury and may find relief as it diminishes.
- Punishment – Some people who self-harm feel shame – either related to the behavior, or the underlying causes of their emotional struggle and believe they deserve to be punished.
- Release – For some, the immediate endorphin rush they experience following a self-harm injury creates a temporary sense of relief. In some instances the compulsive self-harm behavior becomes habit-forming.
How do I know if my child is self-harming? Some signs to look for:
- Wearing long sleeves despite hot weather
- Cuts, burns or scratches – especially several close together
- Bloodstains on clothing towels, or sheets
- Finding self-injury tools (knives, razors, matches, lighters, etc.) hidden in their room or bathroom
- Tight or multiple rubber bands on their wrists
I just learned by child is self-harming, now what?
- Stay calm. Do not judge your child, and do not judge yourself. Just like when you first learned your child is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, your initial response will have a great impact on your child and the relationship you have. If you are reading this after reacting in a way that was less than positive and you need to repair but you don’t know how to go about that, get in touch and we can develop a plan to move forward.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Shock, anger, worry, guilt, horror…all are valid, but none of your emotional responses should be put on your child. Reach out to a trusted friend, counselor, or doctor to help you process your feelings.
- Stay open. Invite your child to share what they are feeling and what reasons they have for self-harming, but don’t force the issue. You want your child to come to you when they feel they are about to self-harm and they are more likely to share with you if you have created a safe space for them to tell you.
- Recognize that your child needs help. It’s very challenging to stop self-harm without counseling to get to the root causes. Work with your child to find a therapist who is affirming of their identity and is experienced in helping patients discontinue self-harming behavior.
- Be patient. Self-harming behavior is not likely to stop quickly even with therapy, but it can stop.
- Continue to love on your kid. Make sure they know you see them for the amazing human they are and be there for them whenever they need support.
- Panic. Self-harm does not mean that someone is trying to commit suicide. While they may accidentally create an injury that can put their lives in danger, ending life is not usually the intent.
- Give ultimatums or punish. Understand that attempts to force someone to stop self-harming behavior are more likely to make them hide it than to stop it.
- Reprimand. “How could you do this to yourself?!” is not a helpful question or one they may be able to answer, and adds to the shame cycle that may contribute to their self-harm cycle.
- Keep them away from friends. While some kids do self-harm with another person or in groups, isolating them from their peers is punishment. It’s reasonable to put limits or boundaries – they need to stay in supervised areas, or in public places – and monitor relationships that concern you, but isolation is likely to have more negative repercussions.
As parents, we want to protect our kids from all pain and it may be very challenging to get your head around the fact that your child is the one causing themselves harm. Know that if your child is self-harming you are not alone and there is help available. You are not a bad parent if your child is self-harming and you can take the steps necessary to get help – for them, and for you.