Self-Harm and Parents: Ways to Help Your Loved One


self-harm-dauerThis is a guest blog from James Dauer, Licensed Mental Health Counselor. Mr. Dauer sees Behavioral Health patients at our Smokey Point location.

Not being able to help your struggling child is one of the hardest parts about being a parent, and when that struggle is self-inflicted, endless waves of feeling powerless and scared roll in one after another. Not a fun place to be!

Some parents have heard about cutting through various media but to others this subject is about as familiar as intergalactic weather patterns. When parents first discover their child is engaging in self-harm or a.k.a. “cutting” the immediate reaction is often shock, disbelief, or flat out protest.

Parents will usually make an attempt to quickly seek an explanation, Why? What sense does that make? What’s the purpose? Is this for attention? What did I do wrong? Are you mad at me? I like to ask: Why is it happening and what can be done about it?

For starters, let me shed some light a bit on how to understand self-harm or high-risk behavior, and why it happens. Self–harm behavior happens because it plays a valuable role in your child’s life. Destructive behavior is valuable? You may be questioning. Yes! Understanding this point is important.

Imagine your child cruising along in life and suddenly he finds himself with an intolerable internal state, and senses that he could do something immediately to escape it! By cutting himself he discovers how endorphins are released and a soothing sensation occurs, thus taking the edge off of a sunburned emotion system.

Your child will probably explain his behavior as the result of being a loser or failure. Instead of wallowing in pity together help your child understand that his behavior actually serves a legitimate purpose of trying to feel better.

This is important because you want your child to know that even though the outcome of the behavior may be disastrous, his intention is not. As your child gains awareness that his behavior is linked to very painful emotional states, the door swings open to discussing alternative strategies to feeling better—and you get to play the role of the loving parent that you are!

But my child is so impulsive and doesn’t think before she acts! A common myth in our culture is that adolescents are impulsive. Behind every self-destructive act are a host of strategic thoughts of which some happen within seconds, extend throughout the day, week, or previous month: How do I feel? What should I do? Maybe this will make them care? Where will I stash it? Maybe this will make them think twice?

People of all ages that engage in intense and risky behavior all describe a sense of feeling compelled, because the behavior has a calming, emotionally organizing, or peer group bonding benefit to it, to name a few. The problem is your child may feel like she cannot resist the urge to self-harm, and as a result feels out of control, like it is happening to her, and this looks impulsive.

Helping your child identify her own stress levels just as you would hunger pangs, and creating a stress management or tension reduction plan before a crisis will help a lot. Not to have a plan is still a plan, but not a very good one!

  • Work hard at understanding how the behavior makes sense to your loved one.
  • Try coming up with alternative ways to pass the time skillfully when distress sets in.
  • Consider seeing a counselor if you continue to have concerns: when it comes to cutting seeking help is never premature!

Do you have any recommendations on how to help someone struggling with self-harm?


  1. anonymous

    My 16 year old just went through this and I would not have found out if I didn’t go through her phone while she was grounded. She always wore long sleaves and I didn’t think anything about it since the weather was chilly. We are both in counseling but have a long way to go! Plus she is a normal hormonal teen which compounds it. Please check your teens if they always wear long sleaves around you!!

  2. It seems like this topic is getting more common and still one of those things people don’t talk about. What you’ve said is important for parents to know.

  3. Anonymous

    I’ll never forget when I saw one of my sister-in-laws when she was just a teen, after having done this all up and down the entire length of both arms. It happend just shortly after her parents had split up and her mom had started dating someone new just a few short weeks later. The mom had the greatest influence on her, and it wasn’t a healthy one, was so frustrating to see.

  4. Anonymous

    Thanks for discussing this topic. I too have a teen who cuts, in her case since age 13 (about 9 months or so). She has found a support group, on her own, and has found that discussing this with other teens as well as providing support for others who are trying to stay “clean” from cutting has been really useful to her. We’re not out of the woods, I now pay more attention to what’s going on with her (without hovering) than I ever did before.
    Again really appreciate this content, will try to help her learn to pay closer attention to her stress levels and also her triggers.

  5. Anonymous

    Are there any online support groups/resources that someone can recommend for a teenager struggling with this problem? I would appreciate any pointers in the right direction that can provide positive support.