parents

The cutting helped her feel in control. She said that "everyone was doing it".

If you found your teenage daughter like this, what would you have done?

Warning: This post deals with self harm. Its content, and specific words used throughout the piece, may be triggering for some readers.

By ANONYMOUS

I found her slumped over the toilet bowl which in itself, was unusual. She wasn’t sick but she “couldn’t go to school” she said. It was her first day back after a long hiatus and I was running late for work and honestly, my first instinct was to tell her to stop being ridiculous. That’s when I saw it. Or I should say, saw them. They weren’t overly obvious, just fine little lines extending out from under her pajama shorts.

They weren’t deep, they were more like grazes but they were definite lines drawn with something sharp (later found to be a razor) on her upper thigh. “WHAT is that?!” I asked and pointed, my voice raised.

I panicked, I admit it. I just totally panicked and I am ashamed to admit that I handled it poorly. I think I just went into Mamma Bear, worst case scenario mode and instead of my first instinct being one to nurture, it was one of pure, surreal, terrifying fear.

She ran into her room to escape her now, rather scary mother and I followed. I sat across from her, calmed down and told her to tell me what was going on. She was crying, I was crying, her brothers were knocking on the locked door, wondering what was going on. In short, everyone was petrified. It was less than ideal.

She soon admitted that she had only been ‘cutting’ or self harming for a few days. She was starting to question her sexuality and it was all she could think about. That cutting helped her to feel in control and that “everyone was doing it”. The last bit threw me and as tempted as I was to pull the old “If everyone jumped off a cliff would you do it too?”

I realised that I wouldn’t be helping the situation.

Instead I tried to reassure her that it didn’t matter if she liked girls or if she liked boys or even if she liked both. She would like who she would like and love who she would love. But I knew this was easier for me to say than it would be for a 14-year-old to believe.

I’ll admit, it absolutely blindsided me. I thought I would always realise when my daughter was hurting. It really, just made me so incredibly sad that I was right there, all the time, yet I’d totally missed it. Here I was, telling anyone who would listen that we had a very close, cool relationship yet here she was, in turmoil and taking to her beautiful, untouched skin with a razor.

Of course, I wanted to fix her immediately. I suddenly longed for the innocence of yesterday’s eye rolling and smart retorts. My main priority was to work out how to help her. And I was utterly lost. I Googled ‘self harm’ which just sent me further into a rabbit hole and confused and frightened me even more. Really, too much information can be a very bad thing.

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I decided to call my best friend who has a daughter of a similar age, who lives 2,000kms away and download to her. What she was to tell me broke my heart for the second time that day – her daughter had also been cutting herself. Had been for months and she hadn’t told me because she hadn’t wanted to burden me.

Luckily I was able to get an appointment for my daughter with a psychologist that afternoon. I left her alone to speak with him for over an hour. On the way home in the car she turned to me and said: “I promise to stop doing it if I never have to go in and speak to that guy ever again.”

“Has she stopped cutting? Yes… Will she start up when something again becomes too difficult for her to process? I can’t say.”

We found her another, more suitable therapist and she went a few more times and just talked. It’s been over a year now and she has returned to the dry witted, eye-rolling teenager who occasionally cuddles me just because she feels like it.

Has she stopped cutting? Yes. Was it just a fad, a phase she tried out because “everyone else was doing it”? Perhaps. Will she start up when something again becomes too difficult for her to process? I can’t say but I do know that I am more aware, more open, more understanding and hopefully, instead of turning in on herself, she’ll come seek me out first.

What though, as parents, should we be looking out for?

Cath Corcoran, a South Melbourne Psychologist who has worked in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for many years suggests looking out for the following:

• Withdrawn behaviour
• Teens isolating themselves for long periods of time with accompanying lowered mood or agitation
• Changes in the way they dress and not revealing parts of their skin when usually happy to freely do so in the past.
• Parents know their children, any change in their behaviour is a sign to check in with their teenager.

Corcoran also explains why it is that (mainly) girls of this age start to self harm:

There are so many varied reasons why teens self harm. It’s either a trigger or a vehicle. There are two main underlying themes that are usually very similar in teens who self harm.

The first, adolescents are not feeling heard and understood. They are either finding that they cannot find someone who they can express themselves to and more importantly feel at ease expressing themselves to this person or people.

The other major cause is that they are finding it difficult to articulate their distress and put it into words. Finding it hard to clearly state their emotions and feelings into something comprehensible as to what they are experiencing, not only for others but themselves. It can be anything from sadness, grief and loss, to adjustment and confusion or anxiety and even anger. What can compound this is feeling isolated or lonely.

Yes it is an extreme form of coping but it is a coping strategy that they have found works for them when words don’t and their mind can’t get any respite from its thoughts and thinking.

Young people have expressed to me in the past that it provides a sense of relief, others a numbing sensation, or a physical expression of that which they feel on the inside.

What though as parents, can we do to help them? Corcoran suggests that we

• Be there for them
• Allow open communication
• Have no judgement
• Show them physically and emotionally that you are present for them.
• Ensure them that if you cannot help them, then you will support them in getting help from someone who can.
• Provide a safe space for them
• Be aware and mindful of the self harm methods of choice and try to minimise any availability of these. Of course this is difficult, they are adolescents, the time in their life they have more responsibility and freedom and also increased risk taking behaviour. Try your best.
• Nourish and nurture them. Re-establish relationships, introduce new meaningful activities that you can do with one another. They are growing and evolving and so too must our relationships with them.
• Remember that a cuddle still works wonders.
• Tell them that they are loved, even if the relationship is strained, it’s about the young people knowing that they are loved and loveable even when they may not feel like they are.
• Redirect them to better ways to express their feelings and emotions so that they feel like they are connecting their words and thoughts to exactly how they feel. Adolescents need to find activities that can help them express this – art, drawing, painting, poetry, journaling, writing, music, playing an instrument. For others it may be letting off steam, playing a sport – team or gym class or individual pursuit. Others though may actually identify strongly with seeing a therapist or a counsellor. This is also why it is about helping them to identify someone close that they connect with.

Corcoran goes on to stress that some may be able to stop immediately once they are feeling supported. Others may need a specific plan in place to gradually reduce the long term self harming they have been performing. It is helpful to work with a mental health professional in this instance.

What I guess all parents of teens (and frighteningly, the statistics say tweens) need to know, is that that “cutting” or self harm, really is quite common. That it is usually not a suicide attempt. This practice has long existed in secrecy and then has been easily hidden under clothing. Recently however, movies, TV shows and the easy access to the internet has drawn attention to it, prompting greater numbers of teens and tweens to it.

I wanted to write this because if my oldest and best friend and I didn’t feel as if we should burden each other with it, then how many other parents out there are also trying to cope and deal with this alone? Not just that, how many don’t know that it’s going on?

So I wanted to start the conversation, have the discussion and allow other parents to come and tell their story.

If this post brought up any issues for you, or you just feel like you need someone to talk to after reading it, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 at any time of the day or night.

If you are a young person, or know a young person, who might want to talk to someone about the issues explored in this post, you can ring the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Tags: kids , motherhood , health-and-wellbeing
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