As my kids have grown and I’ve talked to more parents who are ahead of me, I’ve learned one important thing–bigger kids mean bigger problems. Figuring out a way to get a 7-month-old to sleep through the night does feel hard and heavy at the time (and it is!), but when parents are struggling to understand their teens or find ways to support them through social issues, most would probably say they’d trade those challenges for baby sleep issues any day. Part of the problem is that it’s harder to talk about a teen’s issues with friends and resources than it is to, say, throw out a social media all call for advice on buying a sippy cup that doesn’t spill. With growth comes more complicated issues, more social stigmas, more responsibility to protect kids’ privacy and, for many parents, less support and resources because less parents are talking about things. We’re still in the sweet spot of three young kids, but I’m gathering as much information and listening to so many stories of friends who are raising teens so that I can be prepared for harder days.
My friends Dr. Jeffrey Olrick and his wife Amy of Growing Connected are back today in their series addressing some of the tough parenting questions that many face. Tough questions require so much compassion and understanding, and my friends are always so good at that.
For the last several months, my 15-year-old daughter has been acting withdrawn and secretive, and getting upset whenever I ask her what’s wrong. She’s also only been wearing long sleeve shirts, even in this warmer weather. Yesterday she opened up enough to show me her arms, which have multiple scratches and cut lines on them. She’s been cutting. I still don’t know why. I told her we’d get through this together, but I feel terrified. I don’t know how got here, so how can we make our way out? — Heartbroken Mama
Most of us have had or will have punch-in-the-gut moments as parents. Moments when something so unexpected or full of pain happens with our kid that it takes the air right out of us for a bit.
In moments like this, it helps to get still and catch your breath. Catching your breath means reaching out to a partner or a few trusted, close people for support. It means gathering facts about the situation before deciding how to move forward. For us, it also means centering ourselves in prayer—expressing our desperation into the quiet and listening for wisdom and love big enough to carry us through even this pain.
For now, know this: Few things in life are as scary and overwhelming as discovering your child is intentionally harming herself. But you are not alone. Approximately 1 in 4 teenage girls and 1 in 10 teenage boys report a history of self-harm behavior. That’s a huge number of kids and families affected by self-injury. So your daughter is not an abnormal, forever-damaged kid. She’s a child struggling to figure out how to manage distress and finding relief in an unhealthy way.
Most adolescents who self-injure are in intense mental or emotional pain. They may suffer from anxiety and depression. For some teenagers, cutting focuses the mind on physical pain, which temporarily interrupts overwhelming thoughts and feelings. For those kids, self-injury is a form of psychological pain management. It works in the short-term by trading one form of pain for another. Other young people self-injure for a different reason: to feel something, anything, because otherwise they feel numb and emotionless. These kids are often at greater risk for increasingly dangerous episodes of self-injury. Their symptoms can be signs of serious trauma and longstanding depression.
Adults generally do not self-injure because adult brains have developed enough to manage their thoughts and emotions more healthily. Adults also tend to have more options for getting out of stressful situations. But adolescents are stuck with their developing brains and often have limited control over their circumstances.
Young adults who have recovered from the urge to self-injure consistently report that having caring, calm and understanding adults in their lives during their healing process was key to their recovery. So it’s going to take some courage, but you can help your daughter work through her pain as her brain develops and grows. This punch-in-the-gut moment could be an invitation to enter into your daughter’s life in a real way and ultimately grow closer.
After you’ve caught your breath, work to create a place of safety for your daughter. About half of kids who self-injure also feel suicidal, so it’s essential to find out whether she feels like she wants to die, and not to shame her if she does. If she reports suicidal thoughts, tell her you love her, praise her for her bravery in being honest with you, and assure her that you will do whatever it takes to help her to feel better. Call 1-800-SUICIDE or go to your local ER if you are concerned about your child’s immediate safety.
Because thoughts of suicide can be a form of fight-or-flight, make sure to ask her if there is anyone in her life who has harmed or threatened her. If she shuts down when you press into this question, or reveals something upsetting, seek professional help to determine how to keep her safe.
If you do not believe that your daughter is in immediate danger, begin to create space for connection and unhurried conversation. Spend some time thinking about how she could feel your love in ways that are particular to her.Does she have an activity she loves to do, or do you have good experiences going out for lunch, shopping, or watching a favorite tv show together? Try to enter her world by facilitating things she enjoys that are anchored in real, not virtual, life.
When our kids are struggling they need us to be brave enough to listen to their experiences with an open heart. As you create opportunities to talk, ask questions to clarify your understanding of what she is going through, not to challenge or correct her. Ask her explicitly if she feels like you make it harder for her to manage her world, and take her seriously if says you are contributing to her pain.
Discussing all these things can feel scary or threatening, for both of you. Seek professional support if these conversations feel too hard, and continue to express your love for her in the midst of it all.
Once you’ve begun to understand the pressures and pain your daughter is facing, you can start problem-solving situations together. A shared plan for moving forward will include removing unnecessary stress in her life and equipping her with strategies to better manage her own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. As you do this, remember that some kids cut because they don’t feel any control over their lives, so carefully consider what decisions you can start opening up for her. This may mean shifting some things in the life of your family, so please be compassionate to yourself during this process, and reach out for the support you need, too. Give your daughter unconditional love and a commitment to walk through this with her, no matter how long it takes. And picture us sitting here breathing right along with you, believing that you’ll make your way through this, together.
You can connect more with the Dr. Jeffrey Olrick and Amy Olrick on their site, Growing Connected, and follow them on Instagram @growingconnected or Facebook. If you have a parenting question or issue you’d like Amy and Jeffrey to tackle, feel free to leave it in the comments. You can also sign up for their newsletter where they share more questions, answers and encouragement for any parent seeking more connection with their kids.