By Michelle Mitchell
I saw cuts on her leg and she told me she had fallen over on sharp grass during PE (physical education). I actually believed her at the time. I didn’t think about it anymore until I saw cuts on her arm. That is when it clicked. That was at least two years ago now.
The saying “You don’t see what you aren’t looking for” definitely applies to self-harm. Because self-harm is typically entrenched in secrecy and shame, it is typical for parents to find out about self-harm quite some time after it has begun. Parents may know that “something isn’t right” but may not notice or see evidence of self-harm.
Some of the first noticeable signs of self-harm include knowledge of others who are self-harming, unexplained marks on the body, wearing long sleeves that are never removed, difficulty expressing emotions, changes in behaviour, downward spiral, secretive behaviour, extended time alone, and missing items that could be used for cutting (sharpeners, blades, scissors, safety pins, razors, lead in pencils and signs of depression (withdrawn, sad, negative, lack of resilience and hope).
It is very common for young people to feel awkward or ashamed when their parents find out or confront them about self-harm. These emotions hinder open communication and can make progress very difficult. Because of this, it is often critical that a third party, such as a psychologist, counsellor or mentor be introduced.
Here are some really practical ways to introduce the idea of counselling to a child who is self-harming. Because one size does not fit all situations, each suggestion below represents a different tact that parents may choose to take. Although choosing the right strategy at the right time will obviously give parents maximum results, parents should also recognise how challenging a task they are confronted with. It may feel as difficult as ‘selling ice to an Eskimo’, especially if young people don’t want to talk to anyone, think that there isn’t a problem or assume counselling won’t help anyway.
Tact #1: Show That You Genuinely Care
Language: We are really concerned about you and we wouldn’t be doing our job as your parents if we weren’t going to get some extra help.
Tact #2: Suggest a Trial Period
Language: I really believe this can really help us. I want you to give this a go three times and if you don’t like it we will talk about it.
Tact #3: Identify the Problem as a Family Problem
Language: This is a family issue that we all have to take responsibility for. We will be getting help too. If one person isn’t happy, none of us are happy.
Tact #4: Appeal to their Sense of Compassion
Language: Would you go to counselling for me? Sometimes it is easier to do something for someone else rather than do it for yourself.
Tact #5: Simply be the Parent
Language: There are some decisions we have to make as your parents. This is an adult decision that I need to make for you. I want you to trust that I know what is best for you.
Tact #6: Try to Normalise Therapy
Language: Everyone needs support from time to time. It’s actually really normal. Who are some famous people or family friends who have been to counselling or are going through similar problems?
Tact #7: Give them Options
Language: Would you like to choose one of these people to support you through this? I believe they all have something different to offer but it is your choice since they will be supporting you. Would you be okay if I made an appointment for you or would you like to make an appointment?
Tact #8: Leave the Door Open
Language: I imagine this is difficult for you to talk about, but I want you to know that when you are ready I am here. I also very happy for you to speak to a counsellor of your choice if talking to me is too difficult. I don’t want you to feel pressured or pushed into communicating, but I do feel worried about you when I don’t’ know where you are at. Could you rate how bad you are feeling (on a scale of one to ten) if you are having trouble explaining your feelings in words? That will help me a lot.
For more, check out Michelle’s book “Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help”. This book is available in all good bookstores and www.michellemitchell.org