As a parent of two daughters who each self-injured over a period of many years, I struggled with guilt, anger, hopelessness, fear, and an array of other distressing emotions. When my oldest daughter first approached me to tell me that her friend was self-injuring in 2002, I was confused and wondered if I really understood what was happening. When she confessed that she had begun to self-injure herself the following year, I hoped that it was a temporary thing. I hoped it could be addressed by removing items that she could cut herself with and making sure she was in therapy.
Was I ever wrong.
I know now that self-injury is an insidious behavior that isn’t quickly responsive to therapy in most cases. I know now that it appears to be intrinsically reinforcing and therefore a behavior very difficult to successfully treat. I know now that a young person determined to self-injure can find a way.
But when I first found out, I maintained the delusion that I could fix it. That I could find the right resources and all would be well. At the time, research was not yet available demonstrating the danger of treating self-injurers in groups and she participated in a homogeneous therapy group of self-injurers (do not do this). She saw a therapist that I found in LA and her father or I drove her the one and a half hours for the therapy every week. As the behavior continued and even worsened over the following years, I slowly lost my sense of control. I loved my daughter with all of my heart, but I had to let go of the idea that I could solve this problem for her. I continued to reach out to all of the resources I could find. I took her to new therapists when she felt she didn’t have rapport with the one she was seeing. We went to a psychiatrist and she began medication with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Still, the self-injury continued.
As this odyssey continued in my life and later included another of my daughters (read about contagion within this website), I began graduate school. Early on I decided to make self-injury a topic of all of my research projects and eventually my dissertation. Guess what? I still felt relatively hopeless at home and struggled with guilt, frustration, and anger when confronted by my daughters’ self-injury. Usually, when one of my daughters would approach me with a new injury I would greet them with the F-word and impatiently ask why they hadn’t come to me earlier? Why didn’t they use their coping strategies? Why? Why? I would worry that all of my attention, seeing to their wounds, and even taking them to the hospital would further serve to reinforce the behavior and yet, what option was there? What loving mother would do anything else?
I am sharing all of this frustration and failure with you for one main reason. I want you to give yourself a break as a parent. If a student of psychology and then doctor of psychology cannot always properly handle these difficult situations at home, don’t you think it’s understandable if you mess up now and then? I am asking you to release yourself from the guilt that you turn over in your head that this is somehow all your fault. Even if you have made mistakes, that cannot be helped by you wallowing in guilt. I am also asking you to literally give yourself a break: take time to care for yourself and your needs. As a parent of several special-needs children, I know it can be incredibly difficult to make the time for yourself. But it is so very important.
Despite all of my mistakes, I did do a few things that my daughters have reported as helpful:
– I continued to listen to them (and I always apologized for melting down).
– I spent one on one time with them every week doing something fun and with no pressure.
– I continued to seek out professional therapy for them and took them to appointments.
– One of my daughters benefited from my help in coordinating a plan for school.
I hope that parents can benefit from my experience. You can know right now that this is likely to be a long road. It is a tough road, but even as you struggle and experience personal failures and continue to see relapses of self-injury, keep providing love and warmth. Admit when you make mistakes and keep pressing on. Keep getting professional mental health assistance. Take one day at a time and make time for yourself.