It has been a 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 MereWisdom.org from time to time with searches that break my heart – for I typed so many of the same things trying to find answers. For these visitors, I offer the following wisdom gained from making a million mistakes in responding to my daughter’s self harm.
Caring for Myself and Family
1 – There is nothing I can do to save her or protect her completely – The belief that if I just try harder to protect her, to limit her choices, and keep her safe to get her through this without being able to harm herself further is, in the end, a lie. I had to accept my powerlessness to stop her from harming herself before I could stop dying inside from whether she has or has not self-injured today. It’s her behavior and only she can make different choices.
2 – I did not cause it – I struggled with my own guilt for a long time. A long, long time of second guessing myself, thinking that my own faults and failures ends up, really, only another form of the false beliefs in item one, above.
3 – Her Self-Injury is not the most important thing in my life – She is more important to me than what she does. My son is equally important to me, and can’t be ignored because of constant crises in her life. Self-injury can pull a family out of a normal orbit into a tight orbit only around the self injury. This reinforces the self-injury from my experience, and it harms everyone else now out of orbit.
4 – I needed help for myself and my family and not just my daughter – It’s her behavior, but it affects all of us. More importantly as the family increasingly becomes centered on the self-injury, the more the family systems break down and require conscious rebuilding. Normal systems and family behavior that act as balancing forces for our children and ourselves become reinforcing factors for out of control behavior instead. And as we broke down, it was invisible to us. Outside help is critical.
5 – Learn to live in Daytight Compartments – The notion of “One Day at a Time” is almost a cliche in dealing with these situations, but there is some truth to the idea that just for today I can endure and do the things that I could never do for the rest of my life. For me, the idea of daytight compartments, like watertight compartments on a ship, helped me get through tough times.
Responding to Self Injury
6 – Talk about it – One of the things I did right in this was insist from day one that we would not act ashamed about it and talk freely about self-injury. It is always ok to ask if injuries need immediate treatment, for example. It’s ok to talk about feelings – from my feelings about specific events to her feelings before or after cutting. It’s also ok to talk about other things besides self-injury – there is a whole life taking place at the same time.
7 – Set Boundaries on Behavior – I mentioned above that trying to control her behavior stems from a false belief that somehow I can do it for her. This is one of the broken systems that reinforces negative behavior, rather than balancing or opposing it. Natural consequences are much better. One of the first consequences we had was that all cuts had to be examined by a medical professional within 24 hours.
8 – Build a Team – My daughter’s recovery team became her school nurse, her family doctor, her psychologist and later a psychiatrist. Each of them got a copy of the Bill of Rights for People Who Self-Harm and it made a very real difference in the level of care she received.
9 – Stay the Parent – My daughter at one point was using her self-injury as a point of leverage to take control of the family. She would threaten to cut herself to get herself out of situations, and these tools helped get us past that point. She would threaten, and I would respond that I can’t stop her if she chooses self-injury but then medical care is required, and if self-injury was a part of any behavior contract, then those consequences would happen as well.
10 – Love her enough to respect her decisions – This is the hardest one, and a recent bit of learned wisdom. I think this is because the same need I have to protect her from harm is also in play to keep her from harm by way of her consequences of her actions. This is still an ongoing struggle for me as it is a great theory until I see behavior that is likely to cause problems for yars to come or legal issues and so on. In our case, it meant loving her enough to respect decisions even when the consequences included not living at home for a while, hospitalization, school settings that took her away from music, and so on.