A Letter to the Parent of the Child who Self Harms

Dear parent,

This is hard. And this is scary. I know these things because I have been the child, and I have seen the fear and the reactions of my parents. But I want you to know, before I say anything else, that you need to stay calm right now. Your child needs you to stay calm, because chances are they are feeling anything but.

And they’re the ones hurting.

Yes, you might be hurting too. Seeing your child go through something potentially you don’t understand: that’s not going to be easy. None of this is going to be easy, for you or for them. The last thing they probably wanted was for you to find out that they were self harming, but now that it’s happened the way you react could inform their future choices and whether they open a dialogue with you or whether they shy away and keep their thoughts to themselves.

The worst thing you could do right now, in this moment that you’ve found out, is to react with immediate shock and judgement. You will be shocked. I know that. There is no way you won’t be shocked, even if you’ve suspected things haven’t been right. But right now, your child needs to not see that. They know what they’re doing. Whether it’s cutting, burning, pills, food - whatever their method of self harm, they know you aren’t going to like it. What your child needs is for you to react with kindness and empathy. Let them know you’re there for them, that you’ll sit with them or help them clean up or take them to the hospital if it’s needed. Whatever they might need in that moment, you now have this opportunity to offer them the support they so desperately need.

Don’t yell. Don’t scream at them and ask why. The why doesn’t matter right now, the why can come later. What your child needs right now, in this desperately vulnerable position, is to know that you aren’t going to think any less of them for their actions, and that you’ll be there beside them no matter what. They need you to sit with your feelings, and to not immediately panic. Comfort first. Medical attention second.

I know this goes against every inch of your bones to stand back and comfort, and not immediately rush to find someone else, someone who can deal with this situation. This is your situation right now. Comfort your child. Remind them they’re not alone, that you don’t think any differently of them, that you’re not going to run away from this situation. How you handle the first few times sets you up for the rest of your relationship. Panicking doesn’t help. Running to the doctor won’t help if your child doesn’t trust you.

Establish that bond. Make sure that in further incidents - because at this point, the likelihood of there being further incidents is high - that your child feels safe enough to come to you. Make sure that they feel they can tell you without fear of there being further repercussions. If they don’t feel safe, that’s when they’ll hide. Don’t let it get to that point again. If they know they can come to you and you’ll help without judgement, that’s when safe medical practices can be established.

If this isn’t the first time. If you’ve known your child is self harming for a while and you’ve not necessarily reacted in the best way, this is the time to establish a dialogue. This is the why. Don’t snap. Don’t shout. Talk calmly and logically. Take the time to really listen to what your child is saying. Often self harm doesn’t mean they want to die. A lot of the time your child just doesn’t know how else to express the emotions that they’re feeling. A hundred overwhelming emotions all at the same time with nowhere to escape. Or sometimes, there is no emotion. The hurt is the only thing that feels. Listen to them. Let them tell you the why, if they want to. If they can’t, let them know that you know this will probably happen again. That you want to help them stop, but you know how addicting it can be and how relapses can happen. Let them know you’ll never judge them.

The non judgement is key. They’re probably so afraid of being judged that they don’t even know how to talk about it. The very act of deliberately hurting yourself is so taboo they can feel the judgement without needing to be around anyone. They have the weight of society bearing down upon them. Be the shoulders they need and the zone they crave with no judgement at all.

It’s scary, I know. I’m here with you.

Dialogue. No judgement. Let your child lead. Most of the time, self harm can be done in a safe manner. I know. I know. It’s never the right response, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Know that you can help keep them safer. Make a box. A sterile box. Clean instruments and plenty of first aid supplies. Make the box with your child. Have the peace of mind that the risk of infections will be lessened. Listen to your child.

So much of the time, this isn’t your fault. Nothing you have done has lead your child to this situation. And if, for any reason, you are part of the cause? Listen to your child. Listen to what they are so desperately trying to tell you through the act of hurting their precious, beautiful bodies. You have the position now to get to know your child that little bit better. Take advantage of this. Get inside your child’s head and learn why they are hurting so badly, even if you can’t understand how they could hurt themselves, even if you yourself have never experience these urges. Trust me. Until you have been in the position where you can do nothing but hurt yourself, you don’t know how desperate life can get. Listen.

Together you can get through this situation. Talking, medication, whatever it needs. Let your child lead you. One day, they won’t hurt themselves anymore. Until that day comes, you need to stay calm, and help them stay safe.

Love, Cordelia