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Your child self-harms, now what?
No Caption - photo by Jessie Shepherd, MA, AMCHC
It is the worst nightmare for parents to look down and see cuts or bleeding that their child has inflicted on himself or herself. Your initial reaction might be to panic or get angry.

Here are the best practices to handle this frightening situation.

1. Stay calm

Staying calm may be the furthest thing from your mind, but you need to regulate your emotions. If you react negatively, your child may clam up, and you will not be able to help him or her through this distressing time.

2. Figure out if they are trying to kill themselves or others

There is a big difference between self-harm and suicide attempt. However, they may look very similar. So asking your child what his or her original objective was is very important and will determine your next action. The best way to ask this is to be straightforward with little to no emotion. This will facilitate keeping the child's answer as close to the truth as possible. If he or she was trying to commit suicide, then you need to take them to a hospital for evaluation. An ambulance needs to be called if the injury appears life-threatening.

3. Have them talk about their feelings

Let your child know that he or she can talk to you. The best way to show this is by staying calm and being nonjudgmental. It can be normal for them to feel numb or emotionless. Just have them notice this and express any body sensations that come up. This will help reduce numbness and increase awareness of his or her body again.

4. Investigate how they are cutting

They may resist when you ask about how they are cutting. The reason you are asking this tough question is that you are going to take away the objects they are using to self-harm, along with anything that may be used in the future. You may have to use some detective skills when eliminating these objects from your home. Items can include loose screws, pens, staples, or small sharp pieces of plastic. The use of self-harm will be replaced, under professional support, with other coping skills like rubberband flicking around the wrist, cold showers, holding ice, music and various other techniques.

5. Tell them your feelings

You need to keep your calm demeanor while discussing your feelings. It is important that you are honest with them. Common emotions for parents are being scared, overwhelmed and sad. This situation can give you mixed emotions such as you love them and dont want them to hurt themselves, but you feel guilty and want to shut down. Accept your emotions without judgment. Stay honest with them and they are more likely to be honest with you.

6. Seek professional help

Finding a good therapist who has worked with people who self-harm is very important. Self-harm is a complicated issue and needs a calm outside person to help walk you through a safety plan and relapse prevention plan. Having a therapist is also a great support for the family system and can be a great comfort as situations become emotionally charged. Self-harm is just as complicated as substance abuse issues or mental-health disorders. Know that this is not a simple coping mechanism to eliminate, and it will take time. It is best to get the family involved to support one another in this difficult but rewarding journey.

7. You are not alone

Understand that although this is a scary situation you do not have to figure all of this out on your own. Always keep helpline information on hand and educate yourself. 1-800-DONT-CUT, 1-800-334-HELP, and are great resources for crisis situations. This being said, when in doubt call emergency services.