How to Support a Child Struggling with Addiction to Self-Injury

child struggling with self-injury being helped and wearing a fireman's helmet

Contributed by Staff of Timberline Knolls

We think of children as innocent and pure. But, what about a child struggling with self-injury? How could something so delicate and good willingly inflict pain on itself?

Self-harm involves inflicting physical pain on one’s body. Most often this is done by cutting, burning, or biting. Whether a child learns about self-harm from somewhere, or someone, or just has the thought one day to try it out, it can quickly become addicting. The act meets some need that is not being met elsewhere.

The Nature of Routine and Ritual

Young girl smiling with her head in her hands.We are innately ritualistic people, particularly when we are young. Routine and ritual create a sense of safety and stability. What was once unpredictable becomes predictable.

What was once chaotic now feels controlled. The more we engage in the behavior, the deeper the pattern and ritual become ingrained. Thus the harder it can be to break the cycle of addiction.

When we as the clinician, parent, or friend are trying to help a child struggling with self-injury addiction, it can feel like an uphill battle. We just want them to be healthy and safe. We just want them to stop engaging in the behaviors. We may even say to them, “just stop doing that.” They may be able to abstain temporarily due to motivating factors or a period of stability in the mood. However, it is often not as easy as “mind over matter.” Until we look at what is at the root of the behavior, the “why”, we cannot break the cycle.

So why do young people engage in self-harm? Most often the behavior is tied to emotions. “When I’m depressed I don’t feel anything, but when I cut, I feel something.” “I can’t stand feeling anxious, but when I hurt myself the anxiety goes away.” “I feel a sense of relief after I cut.” “I feel guilty, shameful, and embarrassed, I deserve this hurt.”

Developing a Support System

Father and young daughter huggingWhen we as the support system stop focusing on the “what” and start focusing on the “why”, hope for change is possible. We can start the process of change by first acknowledging and validating what the child is feeling.

“I hear what you are sharing, it is perfectly okay for you to feel this way, and I am here to help you get through the feeling and/or situation in a healthier, safer way.” Next, we can help the child brainstorm and try out alternative ways of coping with the feelings. “Instead of cutting when you feel overwhelming anxiety, can we take deep breaths together or go for a walk?”

It is important to help the child struggling with self-injury differentiate when coping becomes avoidance versus tolerating. If we don’t learn to get through the emotional turmoil, we will continue to avoid or turn back to relying on self-harm to stop from experiencing the uncomfortable feeling.

Empowering a Child Towards Recovery

Young boy with his father at a soccer gameThe final part is empowerment. We empower the child by helping them build a plethora of tools for their coping skill toolbox and reminding them that they have the power of choice. They can choose to go for a walk, or ask for help, or not self-harm even if they don’t always feel that they do have the power at the moment. We cannot control our thoughts and emotions, but we can control what we choose to do in response.

When we as the adult can guide and support a child struggling with self-injury with patience versus doing for, the child may begin to feel the hope we hold for them that change is possible, and they are worthy of it.

Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.

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Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.