Being a Dad through Self-Injury

family, Life as it is, Love, Spiritual Journey, Vulnerability

All I had to do was type that title, and I felt fear. So I will face those feelings and tell you that I am going to touch on my journey as a father of a child who self-injured herself repeatedly. Whether you call it cutting or self-mutilation or whatever, I am talking about when you find your child or teen is hurting themselves.

Play with Me

I was looking through some old notes and journals from years ago, and I found an entry from five years ago this month:

My daughter cut herself again Wednesday, getting suspended by her school for bringing the knife to school, and getting busted for the cutting. Lots of emotions around this including ones of guilt, or that it is my fault for being so fucked up emotionally.

But one impulse is the Warrior impulse. She is in danger, I must protect her. But there is no tangible entity for me to attack. The Warrior is frustrated. I want to turn it off, the emotions are painful. But this is a good impulse, it comes from the right part of me, and trying to deal with it without trying to crush it has been hard.

My punching bag got a big workout last night. A recent acquisition, done in part to give me a safe outlet for my emotions. And yet when I was done, I was just hanging onto the bag, praying, and I remember hugging the bag as if it was my higher power.

That was my world back then, and I have made many mistakes since then and I have learned many things, and so in hoping to help someone else going through this same situation, here are some of the things I have learned. I am unable to tell my daughter’s story, all I can do is tell my own as a parent.

It’s not a short story, so I will probably have to just list my mistakes and what I got right. We are talking about a story that started a half-dozen years ago at least and still continues today. It was a progressive problem moving from scratches to cuts to needing stitches to an incidents requiring a surgeon to put her back together.

Here’s a summary of some of my mistakes:

  • Treated it like it was all her problem instead of working on family system and my part in it
  • Thinking I caused it, that I could control it, or at least cure it
  • Let “her not cutting” become one of the biggest goals for myself
  • Accepted unacceptable and abusive behavior towards me under the foolish notion that I could endure it and at least she wasn’t cutting herself

Here’s some of what I did correctly:

  • Set consequences requiring medical attention each time as it allowed natural consequences to take place
  • Refused to be ashamed or treat any of this as a secret – keeping communication open
  • Attended parenting support classes for troubled teams
  • Created a “care team” of her doctor, school nurse, and psychologist – getting them talking to each other
  • Learned the three C’s – I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and i can’t cure it
  • Got my daughter into local “Alternate Peer Groups”
  • Let her suffer consequences; while loving her and holding her hand as much as possible

There’s a song that was a big part of this journey for both my daughter and myself and we would often listen to it together. In her longer runs of trying to turn away from this behavior, she would often walk around singing it to give herself courage. Here are some of the words (and here is a playlist with it).

Hero (Red Pill Remix)

No one talks to her, she feels so alone
Shes in too much pain to survive on her own
The hurt she can’t handle overflows to a knife
She writes on her arm, wants to give up her life
Each day she goes on is a day that she is brave,
Fighting the lie that giving up is the way,
Each moment of courage her own life she saves
When she throws the pills out a hero is made

This is one of those blog entries that was hard to write, but I kept thinking about where I was years ago and how alone and cut off I felt. I mean I had to be a failure as a dad to not protect my daughter, right? And now years later I can turn to the frightened father I was and say,

“You are not a failure for having a daughter go through this, and as long as you can keep loving her (no matter how much you hate what she does to herself), you are doing well. The only way you can fail is to stop caring.

But you do have to get some distance from it, you have to demonstrate self-care in the face of self-destruction. You have to enforce rules and let consequences be what they are – even if it hurts. If she chooses the consequences, you must respect her decision. But as long as you keep loving her, she will see you over there and it will help her.”

Yeah, that’s what I need to tell any dad going through this. I shared that image above of me holding onto my punching bag, like my higher power. Ultimately I had to let him take care of my daughter and trust in that care. Its something I am still working on every day.

My daughter called while I was writing this, and she encouraged me – even reminded me that I mentioned writing something for other parents long ago. She also told me that she has not self-injured for over six months now – one of the longest stretches of time she has ever put together day by day. I say that in part so you can help celebrate, and also in part because it’s a daily victory.


22 Responses

  1. Ali says:

    You are awesome. My only child is 9mo old. I have a while before I have to deal with these truly emotional issues. I am amazed at your honesty and your courage. And I greatly appreciate your willingness to work with your daughter through this. Loving our kids is so darn hard, but so darn easy. That's the Catch 22, no?

  2. Joely Black says:

    This must have been very difficult to write indeed. Ten years ago I was severely anorexic and cut – back before it became so wide-spread, so out in the open. Back then it was the kind of thing that got you put away in an institution to be studied.

    I think your response to it has been incredible. It takes great courage to let go and realise that not all your child's suffering can be solved by you. She is her own person, with her own issues.

    I want to say from a personal perspective, as an adult who was there – we get beyond it. We grow up and move on. I have permanent scars that I have never regretted, never hidden, because they are part of what I went through, and it wasn't fatuous by any means. It passes. One day, maybe like me she'll wake up and wonder who that person was, that she was, who did that to herself.

  3. Brandon Cox says:

    James, takes a lot of guts to share they way you have and especially to point out what you might have done differently. My daughter is only six, but I'm well aware of the challenges facing young people today… thanks for putting your heart out there as a resource for other Dads/parents.

  4. Wow. I can't imagine enduring, let alone surviving such a struggle. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Mike Wilton says:

    This was an incredible post and while I have no first hand experience with cutting this post moved me. As a father of two things like this are always a fear. My heart goes out to you and your daughter and I hope that you both continue to be strong as you go through this together.

  6. I've known other parents who have dealt with this issue or something very close. They didn't handle it with the courage you seem to be. Day by day, right.

  7. KarmicAngel says:

    This is an amazing journey in parenting, and I thank you for having the courage to post it. As a parent I feel both inspired and comforted by your post.

  8. Krishanna says:

    Just wow. Powerful post and certainly stuffed full of hard won and earned wisdom.

  9. tom_roepke says:

    James…thanks for your honesty. although i'm pushing through a different kind of disconnect and self-injury with a 19 year prodigal son, your words are absolutely true. i've run around the true issues on my blog, but your heart is a great encouragement. wondering if you've read anything by robert bly, robert lewis or john eldredge on the father wound?

  10. Leisl says:

    New Year's Eve 2005 into 2006 began our journey of recovery. My daughter, too, was a self-harmer. I chose to blog my way through it. ( It helped to release the fears & frustrations I was experiencing as her mother. I felt like a failure. It was a very difficult time for all of us. The silver light around that dark cloud is that we are now good friends again, my daughter & I. She knows now that I will always be there for her and will always love her, no matter what.

  11. Mary says:

    James, thank you for writing this. Much love to you and my cousin.

  12. Mark says:

    James, I applaud you for the courage it took to write this. I have a 21 year old son who has been cutting since he was 15. I, like you, have made many mistakes along the way. The only thing I figured out was he was going to have to figure it out for himself. I love him, don't condemn him, but I don't condone the actions, either. I've offered assistance where/when I could and made myself available at any time. It's hard to deal with as a dad, for sure. Please accept my heartfelt encouragement. It sounds like you are exactly what she needs. Not perfect, but present, persistent and loving. Best wishes.

  13. Mags says:

    If you could see the growth and healing that has taken place over the past few years in yourself and your kids the way I do…you would drop to your knees in disbelief and awe. My prayer for you and yours is that someday you begin to glimpse it and claim it as victory indeed.

  14. Survival of a Self-Injurer - Delicate Melody says:

    […] two months ago, my father wrote a post on Being a Dad Through Self-Injury. He came to me today saying that it had a lot of hits from people looking for help with self-harm […]

  15. […] couple of months since I wrote about my teen daughter’s cutting, and what it was like to be a parent surviving through self-injury. Now I see parents arrive here at from time to time with searches that break my […]

  16. dixiemomx2 says:

    Thanks for sharing & I am glad I discovered your blog. My daughter has been self-injurying and we are into the third week after discovering this and getting her treatment with a psychologist. Your words give me encouragement.

    • crossmage says:

      Thank you for the kind words. I wrote this post – and the other one on 10 Tips for Parenting through self Injury – just for parents such as yourself. It is a frightening thing to go through, and if my story and Victoria's can help in any way to get you through this more easily, then I feel I was successful in reaching out. May you be gentle with yourself and with others as you help your daughter get through this.

  17. boriquobill says:

    iam at a point of looking over shoulder to see if circumstances are entrpapping me. Cutting to prove that you are a Man or that YOU ane NOT week or broken is a voice to be heard from me. I do not seek attentition —I despise it because I know I will be misunderstood. I have cut and cut deeply enough to die but a calmness came to me. I went and bought needle and thread and paid a form of pentinence by sewing up the5' wound myself.. I broke it …. I will fix it.

    • Hi Boriquobill, I'm Victoria. This is my dad's post and he wrote it about me… When I was self-injuring it was definitely because I didn't want to feel weak, broken, or inhuman. I had to feel strong – I had to carry out the emotional pain physically because if I didn't, I was a wreck. When I cut, I'd tell myself that I was being strong because … well, I don't even know why. However, I eventually got help after numerous doctor visits and stitches. I believe that you should see a doctor about the stitches and that in your own time, you will heal emotionally. I cut because there was something inside of me that I didn't like. I've come to terms with every aspect of my life now and I refrain from self-injury. I don't know what words to use to reach you, but I hope to give some experience, strength and hope. I had to fix what was inside of me, and leave the outside of me to doctors.

  18. lg2 says:

    Dear James – again, I come back to your sight so I can forward the link to your gentle, encouraging wisdom to a loving parent in pain.
    Bless you…
    Victoria – you are awesome!

  19. ashley says:

    dear james hi my name is ashley for 8 years I was cutting myself every sience I was 10 now my parents also thaught it was thire falt but its now diprethion gose with its oun way when I was 15 I asmost killed myself and it harmed me relly bad so your not alone its ok <3 thanks god bless you

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