Opening the Dialogue

Fourteen years ago, I felt contentment as I held my infant daughter in my arms. As I gazed down at her angelic, beautiful face, I imagined her life in various stages; my mind was filled with the usual curiosities that everyone has about their children ~ How tall would she grow up to be? Would she love school or hate it? What sort of aspirations would she have as she progressed through childhood, into adolescence?

She was infinitely curious, always asking questions about everything under the sun. She was always busy, in perpetual motion, rarely stopping for a breath. She was a big bundle of moving noise from the time she awakened in the morning, until she drifted off to sleep at night; if she wasn’t talking, she was singing, making random noises with her voice, toys, feet, hands, etc. We lovingly nicknamed her “Chatterbox” because she would come home from school every day and detail every single moment she was away from me. She exuded extraordinary confidence, which enabled her to fearlessly step up onto the stage to perform in plays, sing, play instruments in front of a room full of people.

When her father and I agreed to divorce, she was 6 years old. Although our house had always been filled with a fair amount of tension, our circumstances intensified. The children seemed to take everything in their stride, continuing to do well in school, but when things got much worse, I was afraid of how they would be affected by what was going on. And they were. I did what I could to help them both cope with what was going on but I had to devote time to keeping myself healthy and safe, while making plans to escape.

Although it’s often said that children are resilient, I believe that we sometimes overtrust that resilience, particularly if we allow that pain to continue over an extended period. We don’t realize how their pain manifests itself until it’s too late. Today’s children are very adept at hiding their real emotions and I think it’s especially dangerous, considering that the art of conversation has decreased due to the popularity of the “gadget culture”. It’s way too easy for our children to find like-minded peers to confide in and trends spread like wildfire, thanks to the Internet, regardless of whether those trends are good or bad.

One such culture that has found its way into our lives is “self-harm”. This disturbing practice was unheard of when I was in high school; now, it seems as though everyone I speak to about it has either experienced it within their families or knows someone who has experienced it. Sadly, it has reached epidemic proportions. I have watched my beautiful daughter pull at her hair, scratch at her arms; I have seen the cuts on her arms and legs (I have never seen her cut, however). As her mother, I struggle with the idea that she must resort to such measures to alleviate the pain she has had to endure, as a result of everything that has taken place within the last several years.

Divorce is never easy for anyone involved but, if it’s handled correctly, it doesn’t have to affect everyone adversely. In our case, it was not handled correctly. My daughter’s father only saw opportunities for revenge, regardless of the financial or emotional impact. He was guilty of parental alienation in its severest form, without a second thought as to how his actions would affect our daughter. As a result, she and I were estranged for about 18 months, while she chose to live with her father. During that time, he was totally permissive, allowing her to do whatever she pleased, because he saw it as a way to ensure that she would want to continue living with him. Ultimately, despite my warnings, he lost control of her and she went off the rails. Her relationship with him deteriorated and he gave up. In a bizarre twist, he passed away from undiagnosed cancer and her paternal family relinquished care of her in the aftermath of his death. She felt terribly confused about her feelings for me, after being poisoned against me for so long; she felt (and still feels) guilty for the way she acted towards her father, before he passed away; she felt betrayed and rejected by her father’s family. There was little chance of her resilience enabling her to cope with such turmoil; although I fully realize where her pain comes from and, also, her desperate need to rid herself of it, I struggle to comprehend the mindset in which she feels compelled to inflict self-injury. I hasten to note: I am not speaking as someone who did not experience trauma as a child; I, too, had an extremely difficult childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father who regularly targeted my mom and me with hateful criticism and insults. I, too, had to cope with the aftermath of experiences that no child should ever have to endure but I cannot see the correlation between “trauma” and finding comfort in self-harm.

She and I are slowly healing our relationship. I always knew it wasn’t going to be an overnight process. We both have to build up the trust and learn how to communicate effectively. Being consistent isn’t always easy, but I feel like I’m getting better about remaining calm and being the pillar of strength that my daughter needs. Initially, I reacted hysterically to the discovery of her self-harming because I didn’t know how else to handle such a situation. It’s difficult to know how to react because our protective instincts kick in and we naturally want to remove everything that has the potential to harm our children. I am still learning and one of the most important lessons that I have learned is this: it is not possible to remove access to all sharp objects. I thought hiding the knives and scissors was enough; it’s not. The bottom line is, she will find a way, no matter what, using whatever objects are at her disposal. There are even tutorials on the site, giving details about what to use in the absence of a sharp object. It’s THAT BAD.

The questions I have about self harm: How does it make one feel better and does it really make one feel better? Is it happening because kids feel that lost that they feel a sense of belonging to a certain group, regardless what that group practices? Is it considered “cool”?

I have a multitude of reasons for writing an article about self-harm ~ firstly, I want to let other parents know that they are not alone in this; secondly, I want to educate because knowledge is power; thirdly, because I think that opening a dialogue about this is absolutely necessary so that we can band together and do something constructive about this growing problem. It’s not going to go away if it’s swept under a rug. We need to talk about this and give our children a safe outlet. We need to look at our overall dynamics, as a society, and analyze why our children feel they must do this as a coping mechanism…and provide them with alternatives. I believe that our children are collectively crying out for help, even if they’re hiding what they’re doing. Many parents aren’t even aware that their children are doing this and, when they discover what’s happening, they (like me) react from a place of extreme emotion. I recommend keeping a quiet watch for any telltale scars on arms, legs or any other place that’s easy covered by jeans, long sleeves, etc., and, if you see something, do NOT over-react. It’s very important that you maintain a level of calm and show that you love and care, above all else.

So…how am I dealing with it?

  1. Although I know that my daughter will find something to use to cut, I still feel better with keeping the obvious tools, such as kitchen knives, scissors, out of her reach.
  2. I make sure that my daughter attends counseling sessions every week, with 2 different counselors (one is faith-based).
  3. I have alerted her primary care physician and asked for a referral to a psychiatrist, which resulted in a prescription of anti-depressants.
  4. I have alerted her school counselor about what’s going on so that her school is aware of the situation.
  5. I am being consistent with displaying unconditional, non-judgemental love and support for my daughter.
  6. When we discuss self-harm, I talk to her calmly about the impact it has on those around her and tell her that she is valued by many, even if she doesn’t believe it.
  7. I exercise an EXTREME amount of patience; this is not an overnight process. I have to accept that my daughter is not going to miraculously stop cutting one day.
  8. I talk to other parent friends for more information. I have found that telling others about it is not only therapeutic (which is completely necessary to maintain my sanity), but also it allows parents in similar situations to band together for resources and support.
  9. I looked for some books on Amazon and found the following: Stopping the Pain: A Workbook for Teens Who Cut and Self InjureThe Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Anxiety and Worry and The Anger Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Anger and Frustration.

Before closing, I invite you to get in touch if:

  • you self-harm or have done so, in the past, and have a story to tell about why, how you stopped, who helped you, etc.
  • you can share how you helped someone else overcome self-harm.
  • you know of any organizations or support groups that might be beneficial to those who self-harm or their loved ones.
  • you can recommend any books or other resources which serve to educate/raise awareness about self-harm.
  • you’re interested in being a part of a support network (hey, we gotta start one somewhere, right?).

To those of you who read this and are, perhaps, experiencing it, please know that you’re not alone.

God Bless You. ☮

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