Many people in and out of the counseling office ask, "When is a good age to talk about cutting? I don't want to give my child something to try that they haven't even heard about."
Mothers whom I haven't seen in years (many regarding an issue having nothing to do with parenting) will call me in a panic wanting an urgent appointment after having discovered their child or their child's friend has taken a sharp instrument and cut somewhere on their body. They feel completely unprepared about what to say. I believe before your child attends middle school/junior high, you need to have a simple conversation with your student about this issue so they will be prepared when someone they know shows them a cut on their arm or texts them about wanting to hurt themselves. I believe self harm is no different than sex. It's not a matter of if your child will be exposed to this information, but when. Do you want to introduce the topic and be considered their compass on dramatic matters or do you want to wait and risk never beginning the conversation? Below are some suggestions for starting the conversation.
Discussing Self Harm with Your Child:
Five Practical Guidelines
"As you are getting older, you may hear about this thing called cutting. It's a form of self harm some kids do for many reasons"
"Have you ever seen this on TV, read about it, or heard someone talk about it?"
Give them a chance to talk. You may be surprised what you hear. Because a lot of my parent friends are counselors, I wouldn't be surprised if most of our children are exposed to this concept at a younger age simply from overhearing our conversations or seeing book covers that we may be reading at home. Also, remember if you have an older child in the home, your younger children in general will be exposed to everything sooner than your oldest was.
2) Be prepared to explain why some kids cut. Many parents love to start with the "for attention" aspect and dismiss this problem. We have witnessed firsthand in our offices over and over all you will do by blaming attention with disdain is shut down the conversation way too soon. Here are some better leads:
"Some kids do this because they are emotionally overwhelmed and either want their feelings to stop or want to show someone who bad they are feeling. I want to make sure that when you experience intense emotions, you are able to talk and write about them. You can even draw your feelings if that makes you more comfortable. I want to be there for you to not only celebrate the good in your life but also to comfort you when you struggle."
3) Make sure your child has some coping skills so they won't want to turn to self harm.
"When you have strong feelings now of stress, frustration, sadness or anger, what do you do to make yourself feel better?"
Listen to them and if they can't share with you any ways to manage their emotions, have about two or three ideas and ask them what they would think about trying them.
4) Keep the conversation open. Let them know that if they ever hear anything about self harm or it comes up at school, you'd love for them to share with you what they've heard or learned. When I worked in the schools as a crisis counselor, I always felt the students taught me so much about current trends and their youth culture. Letting them know you want to continue the conversation communicates to your child you're interested in a variety of aspects of his or her life (often we focus on performance like grades and activities) and no subject is closed to further discussion.
5) Keep this short and make sure it's a dialogue. I could write (and am) a book about this topic but it's so important that you have mini conversations with your kids (remember their attention span is about 15 minutes) and avoid teaching and lecturing at all costs. You can always get more information and talk about this subject again at a later date.
A Few Last Thoughts on Self Harm
If your child knows a child who has self harmed, it's so important that information doesn't remain a secret. An adult who can help whether a parent or the school counselor needs to know. What starts out as something a child has complete control of can quickly take control of the child in the midst of teenage hormones and impulsivity. Non suicidal self harm is a serious issue very few people just simply outgrow.