Self-Harm: A Major Concern for Parents in the Digital Age
By Marina Spears
It had been a very long day. As I stood by the sink, I closed my eyes and relaxed a bit with my hands in the warm soapy water for a few moments. I suddenly heard my daughter urgently call me. I ran upstairs to find her in the bathroom, blood dripping from her arms, blood all over the floor and sink. She was sobbing, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“What happened? What happened? How did you get so hurt? Did you cut yourself? Did you just cut yourself?” My body went on automatic-pilot-mom. I began speaking softly and did my best to comfort her; I cleaned and bandaged her cut up arms. As my hands were working and my voice was speaking, my mind was spinning in a thousand different directions and my heart felt seized by fear and pain.
A few hours later, my daughter was asleep in bed, and my mind continued to race. I sat at the computer and googled “what does it mean when you child purposely cuts themselves?” I was astounded by the amount of information on “self-harming or “self-injuring” (SI) and how prevalent it is among the youth of today.
Self-harming or Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) is defined by the American Psychological Society as “deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives” (APA, 2015).
The information online was a revelation; up until that point I knew very little about self-injuring and I was very grateful for the vast array of resources available to parents. There are so many resources because cutting has become an epidemic. USA Today recently reported on a study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which tracked a recent increase in emergency room visits for cutting, the largest among young girls ages 10 to 14. In a span of 15 years cutting increased in this group by 166% and for girls 15 to 19 years old it increased by 62% (Diller, 2018).
My daughter also turned to the internet during this time, but she was not looking at the same websites as I was. What I soon discovered was a huge online subculture for those who self-harm, some of which is very encouraging and positive and a great support, while some is very dark and disturbing. She used both.
Websites can provide information on how to cut yourself (there are even YouTube videos), and some sites even glorify self-harming. Instagram and Tumblr have some very intense blog posts from teens who cut, filled with graphic images. The images often depict cutting as a “better way” to deal with emotional pain, and some of the blogs present it as an artistic outlet for coping that most people just “don’t get.” These websites can create a false sense of unity among those who cut, and encourage it as an viable option for dealing with deep emotional wounds.
At first, I was horrified that my daughter was looking at these pictures, but for her it was a step toward recovery. She found that looking at the pictures was enough to not cut herself. What is important to understand about this example is not whether my daughter looked at Tumblr, but what the effect was and our open communication about it. She felt comfortable enough to be honest and share what she was looking at, and for her it was a positive thing. As a parent it gave me insight and understanding into her mindset and how she was coping.
It is important to note that both she and I were going to a professional therapist to help us both navigate through this difficult time, and we employed many outlets to help my daughter channel her painful feelings and provide healthier coping methods.
The internet can provide information, support, and many other helpful resources, but it can also be detrimental and give access to images and ideas you do not want your child to see. The balance beam we must walk through the pros and cons of the internet is our relationship with our child. It gives us as parents the perspective to make the best decisions for them and it gives our children a sense of protection and stability, even through the most tumultuous of times.
Suggestions For Helping a Child Who is Self-Harming
- Keep your relationship with your child the priority and focus. Do not let the “issue” overshadow the bond between the two of you.
- Get professional help for your child. Self-harming is an unhealthy coping mechanism for deeper issues. Those who use self-harm to cope often struggle with depression, lack of self-worth, distorted body image and could be experiencing bullying.
- Find a support system for yourself. Have a person, perhaps a therapist, who you can turn to, so you can regulate your own feelings.
- Be patient and positive. It will take time, but your child will get through this. Most teens who self-injure do not continue into adulthood.
- As a mom who has gone through this, I know it is not easy, but don’t “freak out” when your child self-injures; remain as calm as you can. It is important to create a safe place for your child, so they know they can come to you.
- Above all else, love your child! Remember they are in pain and they are handling things the only way they know how. Your love (as my daughter once told me) is a lifeline for your child; don’t underestimate its power.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. In time my daughter found healthier ways to cope. Be patient; things will get better. For ideas to help your child find positive ways to cope with difficult times, check out 30 Days to a Stronger Child, a fantastic resource in maintaining deep connections with your child and helping them to build resiliency.
Marina Spears is a single mother of five and is completing her degree in Marriage and Family Studies at BYU- Idaho. She loves to read and spend time with her family.
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DeAngelis, T. (2015, July/August). Who Self Injures? Retrieved from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/07-08/who-self-injures.aspx
Diller, L. (2018, February 28). Why are so many of my teen patients cutting themselves? We need to fix this now. Retrieved from USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/02/28/social-media-one-reason-my-teen-patients-cutting-themselves-lawrence-diller-column/376741002/