How to Address Self-Harm with my Child

Continuation of blog post Cutting As Pain Relief? Understanding and Helping Teens Who Self Harm”

The following tips were excerpted from The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults,, Copyright 2012.

How should I talk to my child about his/her self-injury?

Address the issue as soon as possible. Don’t presume that your- child will simply ”outgrow” the behavior and that it will go away on its own. (Though keep in mind this can and does happen for some young people – some do mention “outgrowing” their self-injury.   This typically occurs because they learn more adaptive ways of coping).

Try to use your concern in a constructive way by helping your child realize the impact of his/her self-injury on themselves and others.

It is most important to validate your child’s feelings. Remember that this is different from validating the behavior:

  • Parents must first make eye contact and be respectful listeners before offering their opinion
  • Speak in calm and comforting tones
  • Offer reassurance
  • Consider what was helpful to you as an adolescent when experiencing emotional distress.

If your Child does not want to talk, do not pressure him/her. Self-injury is a very emotional subject and the behavior itself is often an indication that your child has difficulty verbalizing his/her emotions.

What  are  some  helpful  questions  I   can  ask  my  child  to  better  understand  his/her  self-injury?

Recognize that direct questions may feel invasive and frightening at first-particularly when coming from someone known and cared for, like you. It is most productive to focus first on helping your child to acknowledge the problem and the need for help. Here are some examples of what you might say:

  • “How do you feel before you self-injure? How do you feel after you self-injure?”

Retrace the steps leading up to an incident of self-injury – the events, thoughts, and feelings, which led to it.

  • “How does self-injury help you feel better?”
  • ”What is it like for you to talk with me about hurting yourself?”
  • “Is there anything that is really stressing you out right now that I can help you with?”
  • “Is there anything missing in our relationship, that if it were present, would make a difference?”
  • “If you don’t wish to talk to me about this now, I understand. I just want you to know that I am here for you when you decide you are ready to talk. Is it okay if I check in with you about this or would you prefer to come to me?”

What are some things I should AVOID saying or doing?

The following behaviors can actually increase your child’s self-injurious behaviors:

  • Yelling
  • Lecturing
  • Put downs
  • Harsh and lengthy punishments
  • Invasions of privacy (i.e., going through your child’s bedroom without his/her presence)
  • Ultimatums
  • Threats

Avoid power struggles. You cannot control another person’s behavior and demanding that your loved one stop the self­-injurious behavior is generally unproductive.

The following are examples of unhelpful things to say:

  • “I know how you feel.” This can make your child feel as if “their problems are trivialized.
  • “How can you be so crazy to do this to yourself?”
  • “You are doing this to make me feel guilty.”
  • Take your child seriously. One individual who struggles with self-injury described her disclosure to her parents in the following way: “they freaked and made me promise not to do it again. I said yes just to make them feel better though. That settled everything for them. I felt hurt that they did not take me seriously and get me help.



  1. Cutting As Pain Relief? Understanding and Helping Teens Who Self Harm | Teen Talk - December 12, 2012

    […] Continuation of Post: “How to Address Self-Harm with my Child” […]

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