Here are a few warning signs that your child might be practicing self-injury:
Self-injury warning signs:
- Mysterious cuts, bruises, burns, or other wounds.
- A child suddenly starts wearing long sleeves, pants or jackets, even in warm weather. Also look for other cover-ups such as wristbands or wearing heavy makeup to cover over scars.
- A child becomes unwilling to participate in swimming or other activities that expose the skin, and can’t seem to give you a credible reason for it.
- Spending long periods of time alone in their bedroom or the bathroom.
- You find knives, razors, thumb tacks, or other sharp objects hidden among their belongings or otherwise in odd places.
- Bloodstains on clothing or bloody tissues in the trash.
How to deal with self injury by a child or teen
Confronting a child and dealing with the problem
When parents find out that their child is cutting, their first inclination is typically to overreact. You might be tempted to scream, “What are you doing to yourself!” or proclaim something along the lines of “God didn’t give you that perfect body so you could destroy it.” But such irate and contentious reactions don’t help, and are only going to alienate your child further while creating more stress and tension.
How you should respond to self mutilation:
- Don’t be judgmental. Children who do this need empathy and understanding, not more shame heaped upon them.
- Without ambushing or interrogating your child, say something like: “I noticed you have some cuts on your arm. I was curious how you got them.”
- Expect them to lie or avoid the issue. Don’t get upset or accusatory when this happens, but press the issue in a calm way: “That seems like an incredible explanation. When I saw those marks, it made me think you were cutting. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” If they continue to deny it, drop the issue for now. You’ve at least let them know that you’re on to them, and if you can keep a non-judgmental tone and make it clear you’re not going to freak out or punish them, there’s a good chance they may change their mind. Bring the issue up again a day or two later.
- Express curiosity in a respectful way. Ask them questions like: How do you feel after you’ve cut? What do you use? What kinds of things trigger this? Did you learn it from someone, or start on your own? Are there other kids doing it? Why do you think it makes you feel better? These types of non-judgmental questions will help get your child talking, and give you an idea about their frame of mind.
- If it was a one-time thing, you may be okay in just letting it go. However, you must be vigilant in continuing to monitor the situation, watching for new scars or even getting your teen to agree to periodic body checks. Don’t simply take a child’s word for it that they’ve stopped, and don’t let your hopes about what you want to be true blind you from reality. It’s far too common for parents to willingly stick their head in the sand, because it’s easier to believe that all is well than to confront the upsetting reality that your child is disturbed and needs help.